Atletico Madrid's Summer Window Puts New Pressure on Barcelona and Real Madrid

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportAugust 24, 2018

Atletico's Antoine Griezmann kisses the trophy after the UEFA Super Cup final soccer match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid at the Lillekula Stadium in Tallinn, Estonia, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Bleacher Report

With one week to go until La Liga's transfer deadline, Real Madrid's No. 7 shirt remains vacant.

For all the talk of a Galactico to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, there has been no grand signing. For all the rumours of Eden Hazard's, Kylian Mbappe's or Neymar's arrival, there has been no major announcement. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois  joined from Chelsea, but it's probably not a deal that will define their season.

Over at Barcelona, there's not been much buzz or anticipation for the new season, either. Their most expensive summer recruit, winger Malcom from Bordeaux, is not enough to convince most fans that Lionel Messi will not have to carry the team's hopes and dreams on his shoulders over the coming months. Clement Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal are all good signings but perhaps not season-defining.

The only team causing a stir this summer has been Atletico Madrid. They held on to Antoine Griezmann and added Thomas Lemar as their stellar signing, along with the likes of Gelson Martins, Rodri and Nikola Kalinic to add strength and depth to the talent pool.

In a league where the biggest two clubs usually set the tone for a season, Madrid and Barca need to watch out for Atleti.

"I have Atletico Madrid as favourites for both La Liga and the Champions League," Chris Winterburn of Marca tells Bleacher Report. "After a hugely challenging summer in 2017, Simeone has been given a new lease of life after being backed by his board.

"Diego Costa returned in January, and you saw the team begin to take shape with a partnership formed between Griezmann and the former Chelsea forward. They eased to UEFA Europa League success and managed to pip Real Madrid to second place domestically. They only took five fewer points than runaway leaders Barcelona in the second half of last season. The consistency was there.

"Not only have they strengthened properly, with Thomas Lemar adding diligence in a role that Yannick Carrasco simply couldn't, but they have also kept key players such as Antoine Griezmann and Jose Gimenez—the latter Real Madrid wanted desperately. Jan Oblak has remained, while the defensive structure is incredible strong. Rodri is an interesting signing as he's making a huge step-up, but he's a technically gifted individual and takes the pressure of Koke to play multiple positions on a game-by-game basis.

"Atletico have had the strongest recruitment drive and have had the most stress free summer. They are working from a solid footing this term."

Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

Atletico defeated rivals Real in the Super Cup in Estonia last week, securing a 4-2 victory in extra-time. It was a result that many will hope is a sign of big things to come.

Atletico Madrid supporter Reuben Keyes told B/R: "Atletico made strong signings this summer. Martins and Lemar will provide great support to the forwards and I also think Simeone's plan to link Lucas Hernandez, Lemar and Griezmann down the left side will pay off. We saw in the Super Cup that Atletico look like they could contend with the big two in La Liga, and also I think they can compete to win the Champions League.

"Rodri should also be a great signing from Villarreal. A central defensive midfielder to bring stability and control by filling to gap after Gabi's departure to Qatar."

Rodri was in the club's youth set-up until being released in 2013, according to some reports because of a 'lack of strength'. But he established himself at Villarreal and now returns to the set-up.

"Rodri is talented enough to make up for Gabi's loss and I think he will become a big presence in his own right over the years to come," claims 20-year-old Atleti fan Amin. "I think we can challenge to win La Liga this season. I feel a similar vibe to when we won it in 2014."

The optimism of those in red and white colours in Madrid have been further buoyed by the lack of major activity at the Bernabeu and Nou Camp.

At Madrid their has been a shift in the mentality, with no Galactico signing in the past four years. It was expected that would change after the sale of Ronaldo to Juventus, yet the fans are waiting in hope rather than expectation.

The market has been changed since Neymar's transfer from Barcelona to PSG and as a result, Madrid are being touted monumental sums when enquiring over big potential signings. Chelsea's £200 million price-tag on Eden Hazard is perhaps the best example of how they have been deterred from buying a Ronaldo replacement.

"It isn't that Real Madrid don't want to replace Ronaldo, more that they are not convinced by the options on the market," explains Ben Hayward, Spanish football correspondent for the Evening Standard. "Their top targets are Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, and neither of those two are available this summer, while Eden Hazard is their third choice and they believe he is too expensive for a player who is not a prolific scorer and, in their eyes, not at the same level as the two Paris Saint-Germain players.

"Neymar has been a long-time target for Florentino Perez, while Mbappe is at an age where he could potentially star at the Santiago Bernabeu for a decade. But despite reports in Spain that one of the two could arrive due to UEFA's re-review of PSG's finances this summer, the French club are confident that it will come to nothing and are not considering the sale of either player. Real also admire Harry Kane, but he signed a new contract recently and is happy at Tottenham, while Bayern Munich will not even meet with the agent of Robert Lewandowski. Amid all of this, coach Julen Lopetegui has insisted that he is delighted with his squad and Madrid look like sticking with what they have for what could be a transitional season for the current European champions."

Another option for Madrid could be Vinicius Junior—a new Brazilian arrival with hopes of a very bright future. "There is a concern he isn't yet ready," Winterburn tells BR, though. "You have to remember that he wasn't even a guaranteed starter at Flamengo this past season, often being used from the bench."

Still Madrid will hold faith in the fact they have Gareth Bale, Asensio, Isco and Karim Benzema as attacking options this term. And it looks like Luka Modric is staying put, despite plenty of rumour around his situation. Karan Vaid is a Madrid fan and said: "We have about £300 million just waiting for Neymar, but while I feel we should go out and deepen the squad now I can also assure you we have the strength within this squad. The likes of Bale, Asensio, Marcelo, Modric shows they are still one of the best sides in the world."

So how do Barcelona go about defending their title over the coming months?

"For all the money spent, I don't believe Barcelona have actually improved on last season," Marca's Winterburn explains. "Malcom isn't as talented as Ousmane Dembele—nowhere near it—and Ernesto Valverde doesn't exactly trust a 4-3-3 system, so where do you play either of them? 

"Clement Lenglet is a good defender but I don't believe he gets in ahead of either Samuel Umtiti or Gerard Pique at this point, whilst Arturo Vidal is merely a sizeable upgrade on Paulinho. Arthur is wonderfully talented but will take time to adjust to European football—although there are really high hopes he will take over from Andres Iniesta."

Taking over from Iniesta is surely one of the most difficult tasks you could ever imagine as a footballer. A legend for club and country, his style of play and importance to Barcelona will prove almost impossible to match.

"The loss of Iniesta is huge, he's such an instrumental part of how the team plays and achieves success," admits Winterburn. "The worry is that Barcelona haven't replaced him immediately in exactly the same way they haven't yet replaced Xavi. Midfield is where the team are really missing something and not re-signing Thiago could be a huge mistake, as was letting him leave in the first place."

On top of those midfield issues, there will also be concern about Luis Suarez's diminishing form, which was recently explored by Richard Fitzpatrick in this article. Messi's ability to carry his team through tough games is one thing, but to carry them through an entire season would be quite another.

"I think there need to be better communication between the board and Valverde," 27-year-old Barca fan Peter Aguilar told B/R. "I feel we wasted money on Vidal, because we could easily have kept Paulinho. His numbers were great last season and he gave us a strength from midfield that was needed.

"I also think we should have kept Yerry Mina and let go of Thomas Vermaelen, since he is injury prone. This transfer window has been all over the place. My one hope is that we make a late bid for Adrien Rabiot."

Opportunities to break the pattern of Barcelona or Real winning the title are rare. In the past 14 seasons Barca have claimed nine championships and Madrid have taken four.

But Atletico managed that major upset in 2014—and sniff the chance to create history once again.

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