Everyone involved will be looking forward to the return of the UEFA Champions League over the next couple of weeks, but for Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak in particular, it will be an experience to savour.
The last-16 of European football’s premier competition is, of course, where every footballer wants to be in late February and early March, but for Atletico’s Slovenian goalkeeper it was also where he started to prove his worth to his current employers.
After joining from Benfica in the wake of Thibaut Courtois’ return to Chelsea in the summer of 2014, Oblak initially found himself in a losing battle with Miguel Angel Moya for Atletico’s No. 1 shirt, with just one Champions League appearance and a series of runouts in the Copa del Rey to his name.
Then came the second leg of Atletico’s Champions League last-16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen last March, and a night that would change the course of Oblak’s career.
Moya’s injury in the first half meant that the substitute goalkeeper needed to be called upon, and after keeping a clean sheet to secure Atletico’s 1-0 win on the night, Oblak saved a penalty from set-piece specialist Hakan Calhanoglu as the hosts made it through. It is not an exaggeration to state that he hasn’t looked back since.
An imposing figure and a goalkeeper who isn’t afraid to make his presence felt at the back, it is easy to forget that Atletico’s first-choice goalkeeper only turned 23 years old last month.
This week’s new contract will act as a welcome belated birthday present. With Oblak now tied to Atletico until the end of the 2020/21 season—which seems like light years away when you look at it—thoughts will turn to whether or not he can eventually make the same impact on a global scale as two of his predecessors between the posts at the Vicente Calderon: Courtois and David De Gea.
Of course, the mere fact that he’s from Slovenia will make that tough.
The central Europe republic missed out on qualification for UEFA Euro 2016 after losing in a playoff to Ukraine, meaning that their wait for a fourth international tournament goes on after participation at Euro 2000 and the 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups.
All of those were way beyond Oblak’s time, of course, but as some of the very best players in the world have shown over the years, you don’t need top international recognition to prove that you’re a good player.
Consistent, dominant performances for Atletico Madrid will do that, and given that Oblak has been a key ingredient as his side have conceded just 11 goals in 23 La Liga appearances this season, he seems to be well on the way to becoming one of the key members of the next elite group of goalkeepers who are set to challenge the likes of Manuel Neuer for the title of best in the world.
Atletico seem to think so, with the insertion of a £77.5 million release clause in his new contract believed to have “sent a message” to his potential suitors, according to Diego Simeone, as reported by Spanish newspaper AS (via the Daily Express).
In that same report, Oblak outlined his happiness in the Spanish capital, saying:
It shows the club trust me and I'm very happy about that and grateful to everyone who has helped me renew my deal.
I feel very good, to be honest. I'm very happy here, with the whole team, the technical staff and all the people working here. So I renewed because I want to continue here.
All things that Atletico fans have heard from their star players before, of course, but there is a real sense that Oblak is here to stay and, given his age, could go on be the Atletico goalkeeper for years to come.
The return of the Champions League marks his first anniversary of a pivotal moment in his career, and here’s to many more.