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One of the most astounding 21st century runs of European soccer success would not have been possible without the boy from Macon. And neither would its latest triumph have been possible without that Frenchman’s exploits on his homecoming.
What could potentially be the last game of Antoine Griezmann’s Atletico Madrid career was played roughly 40 miles south of his birthplace, in Lyon on Wednesday night. It was the Europa League final. And if it is his swan song – Barcelona rumors intensify by the day – it may very well have been the perfect one.
Griezmann fired Atleti to a 3-0 victory over Marseille, and to the club’s third Europa League title this decade. He struck either side of halftime to complement a customarily rock-solid defensive effort, and to win Atleti its 24th European knockout round tie since 2010.
While one Madrid team prepares for what could be a fourth Champions League title in five years, the other continues to punch even further above its weight. In nine years, it has won three Europa Leagues; it has been to four Champions League quarterfinals, three semifinals and two finals; it has broken up the Barca-Real duopoly in Spain.
All of that for a club whose annual revenue, when the run started, only barely touched nine digits; who, three years into the run, still ranked outside Europe’s top 20 financially. That club has won more European knockout round ties than anybody – even its crosstown rivals – since the turn of the decade.
And Griezmann, since arriving in Madrid in 2014, has been a massive part of that success.
How Atletico has sustained its run
So much of it is a product of the team’s defensive identity, an extension of manager Diego Simeone. Atleti has conceded just 94 goals over the past four La Liga seasons combined, a remarkable record. The year before that, it allowed only 26 and beat Barcelona and Madrid to the title.
Wednesday was its 200th clean sheet in 377 games under Simeone. In four European finals under the Argentinean – two Champions League, two Europa League – it has conceded just two goals prior to extra time. Both were to Sergio Ramos.
Diego Godin is the leader of the rearguard. Jose Maria Gimenez plays five years older than he is. Jan Oblak, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, is the safety net behind them. Gabi has been a mainstay in front of them, despite seemingly more talented midfielders threatening to overtake him. He started and scored the third goal on Wednesday, another fitting piece of the final puzzle.
But Griezmann, for four years, has provided the quality. He’s punctuated the counterattacks. He’s risen to a staring role for France; even to Ballon d’Or contention one season.
He may yet go to Barcelona after the upcoming World Cup. But not before he could cap off one more incredible Atletico Madrid European run, with the first major trophy of his career.
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