With Griezmann on fire, Atletico is hottest team in Spain
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Antoine Griezmann excelled at the World Cup as France’s do-it-all man in the midfield to help the 2018 champion reach a second straight final.
Since falling short against Argentina in Qatar, Griezmann has continued to play his best soccer in several years for Atletico Madrid.
His Spanish league-leading eight assists, along with his team-high nine goals, have played a major part in Atletico quietly becoming the hottest team in the league over the last two months.
Atletico struggled early in the season. Diego Simeone's side flopped out of European competition by finishing its Champions League group in last place. It also quickly fell out of touch with the Spanish league front-runners and lost in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
But that cup defeat to Real Madrid on Jan. 26 was its last defeat overall, and it came right when Atletico started a winning streak in the domestic league, where it hasn't lost since Jan. 8.
Atletico is in third place before playing fifth-placed Real Betis on Sunday as the league resumes after an international break.
The improvement in play by Atletico has had a lot to do with Griezmann being available. In the opening months of the campaign, Atletico limited the minutes of its versatile attacker amid a contractual dispute with his former club Barcelona that was not settled until October.
Griezmann rose to the elite of European soccer while playing for Atletico from 2014-19. He then spent a frustrating two years at Barcelona, and returned to the capital in 2021. He has restored his status as Atletico's star player.
Last week, Griezmann helped France start qualification for the 2024 European Championship with two wins. He scored in a 4-0 victory over the Netherlands and played the full game in a 1-0 win over Ireland.
Atletico is well out of the title race as Barcelona looks like a champion-in-the-making after it beat Madrid before the international break. That 2-1 victory at Camp Nou left Barca 12 points clear of Karim Benzema’s team and a full 17 points ahead of Atletico.
Atletico could, though, have put itself in position to challenge Madrid for a second-place finish, a prize whose greatest payoff would be sticking it to its top crosstown opponent.
Betis arrives at Metropolitano Stadium on its own six-round unbeaten streak, which came amid its elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Manchester United.
But Betis midfielder Sergio Canales will start serving a four-game suspension for saying a referee “premeditated” a red card issued to Canales in a prior game.
Atletico striker Memphis Depay will also miss the game against Betis due to a thigh injury he picked up with the Netherlands.
WARMUP FOR CUP CLASSIC
Barcelona can add to its commanding lead when it visits last-placed Elche on Saturday. Madrid hosts Valladolid on Sunday.
The powerhouses will then meet at Camp Nou on Wednesday in the second game of their Copa del Rey semifinal. Barcelona won the first game 1-0.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press