BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Antoine Griezmann will face former club Atlético Madrid for the first time since leaving for Spanish rival Barcelona when the title challengers meet in the Spanish capital on Sunday.
Griezmann knows he cannot expect an entirely warm welcome from fans of the club that helped him blossom into one of Europe’s top forwards.
But he will arrive having clicked in attack with new teammates Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez on Wednesday, when they all scored for Barcelona to beat Borussia Dortmund 3-1 and qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds.
The France forward posted on social media a photo of him embracing Messi and Suárez in celebration of one of their goals. It included a brief message: “An important night.”
Griezmann wasn’t in the starting lineup but a first-half injury to Ousmane Dembele put him into the action.
Griezmann’s pass into the area took a deflection and reached Messi, who assisted Suárez for the 29th-minute opener. After Messi doubled the advantage from a pass by Suárez, the Argentine met Griezmann’s run with a perfectly timed pass for him to put the result beyond doubt early in the second half.
“(A strong performance) is always good for any player before they face the difficult and complicated task of visiting the Wanda Metropolitano,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said about Griezmann.
If Real Madrid wins at Alavés on Saturday or Sevilla beats Leganés earlier on Sunday, the defending champions will need a victory at Atlético to retain the league lead.
A victory for fourth-placed Atlético would lift it level on points with Barcelona.
Other than in a visit to Eibar last month, when Griezmann, Messi and Suárez each scored in a 3-0 win, Griezmann has had trouble adapting to Barcelona and not being the No. 1 scoring option.
Valverde, however, believes it is just a question of time.
“A lot is said about their connection (between Messi and Griezmann), especially when they score,” Valverde said. “For example, Luis (Suárez) and Leo (Mess) understand one another perfectly because they have been playing together for several years. With time, they will understand one another better.”
In his five campaigns for Atletico, Griezmann scored 133 goals and helped it win a Europa League, a Spanish Super Cup, and a UEFA Super Cup. His ability to score difficult goals, vision, and speed were unique on an otherwise workmanlike squad. But his Atlético fell short in the 2016 Champions League final against Madrid and finished behind Barcelona in la Liga in the past two seasons.
Atlético did not want to lose its top scorer, but Barcelona triggered his contract’s buyout clause of 120 million euros ($134 million) in July.
At Barcelona, the 28-year-old Griezmann is playing in a new position. Instead of being a lone striker or playing with one other forward up front, he is being asked to play on the left wing, which keeps him far from the area where he used to thrive for Atlético.
Against Dortmund he played better because the German side gave him space to romp. Atlético, whose defense-first mentality Griezmann knows better than most, won’t likely give him those chances.
Griezmann acknowledged in an interview with UEFA before the Dortmund match that he is “learning a new style of play,” and undergoing a “learning process.”
He also said that to help ensure things flow on the pitch, he has “already gone for dinner” with Messi and Suárez, who are good friends.
“Our relationship will only improve over time, and it’s clear that what happens will only make us feel more comfortable on the pitch,” Griezmann said.
He will see if those meals with Messi pay dividends against former coach and mentor Diego Simeone.
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