Ronaldo and Griezmann have points to prove
Ronaldo and Griezmann have points to prove
Early season struggles have left both sides eight points adrift of La Liga leaders Barcelona and four points back on a revitalized Valencia.
Twice finalists in the past four seasons, Atletico also look set for an embarassing group-stage exit in the Champions League, while Real also suffered their first group-stage defeat for five years to Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month, although they should still progress to the last 16.
A large part in the downfall of both sides of the Madrid divide has been the poor form of their normally reliant source of goals in Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann.
The two went head-to-head for the Ballon d’Or last year after Real and Ronaldo’s Portugal edged out Atletico and Griezmann’s France in the Champions League and Euro 2016 finals respectively.
However, Ronaldo has scored just once in seven La Liga appearances so far this season despite having 48 shots on goal.
“It’s not my fault if (the ball) does not want to go in,” Ronaldo told French sports newspaper L’Equipe on Thursday. “People look at me like a goal machine, like a guy who has to score all the time.”
However, Ronaldo’s restlessness on the field has been mirrored by rising tension off it with more Madrid-based sports daily Marca reporting on his fractious relationship with Real captain Sergio Ramos this week.
After the 3-1 defeat at Wembley to Spurs, Ronaldo admitted that the Madrid squad that delivered a first La Liga and Champions League double for 59 years last season had been weakened by the departures of Alvaro Morata, Pepe and James Rodriguez among others. Ramos later described those comments as “opportunisitic.”
Griezmann's commitment has also been questioned despite the Frenchman turning his back on a move away from Spain to sign a new deal with Atletico just five months ago.
“Whoever doesn’t want to be here should leave,” Atletico midfielder Koke said on Thursday. Koke’s return after a month out through injury should at least inject some creativity back into an Atletico side badly lacking a spark.
Griemzann hasn’t scored in his last seven Atletico games and was even substituted by Diego Simeone before Thomas Partey’s injury-time strike ground out a 1-0 win at Deportivo la Coruna two weeks ago. “Compared to previous years it is different," admitted Griezmann.
“We have a new stadium, we are struggling to score goals and win games. At the back we are fine, we just need a bit of luck up front.”
Atletico’s slow adaptation to the 68,000-capacity Wanda Metropoli-tano has played its part in their struggles as Simeone’s men have failed to win any of their last four games at home in all competitions. As well as Koke’s return, Yannick Carrasco is fit again for Atletico.
Real, by contrast, are still riddled with injuries with Gareth Bale ruled out for another month and doubts over Isco, Dani Carvajal, Keylor Navas and Mateo Kovacic.
Barcelona are also in action in Madrid today and can open up a seven-point lead at the top when they travel to Leganes.
Valencia will look to maintain the chase and continue a club record run of seven straight La Liga wins ahead of their top-of-the-table clash with Barca next weekend when they travel to Espanyol tomorrow.
• Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid, 10:45 p.m. kick-off
Van Dijk backs Salah to shine in Kiev showpiece
- Virgil van Dijk: He (Mohamed Salah) is a nightmare for defenders, creating and scoring goals.”
- Van Dijk: “To be calm, that is sometimes a very good thing to have, but personally sometimes I have to learn, too.”
LIVERPOOL: As Mohamed Salah prepares for a career-defining period, Virgil van Dijk is confident his Liverpool teammate’s star will only shine brighter on football’s biggest stages.
The Liverpool frontman will face-off with Ballon d’Or rival Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid tonight in the Champions League final before heading off to a debut World Cup with Egypt.
And having witnessed an incredible season that has brought 44 goals — a record 32 in the Premier League — for the Egyptian star, Reds defender van Dijk says he has the all-round ability to strike fear into the reigning European champions and international sides.
“He is a nightmare for defenders, creating and scoring goals,” said the Dutchman of the 25-year-old Salah. “It’s complete for him.
“He’s like everyone in our squad, laidback, calm, no big personalities and egos. We work hard for each other and just want to be better.
“I think he can definitely be the best in Europe, but there are two other players who are pretty good at the moment as well (in Ronaldo and Lionel Messi). I hope for Mo it happens because he deserves it. He is that kind of player to light up a World Cup as well.”
While all eyes will be on Salah and Ronaldo as potential match-winners in Kiev, van Dijk, 26, will have a major role on the defensive front.
The game will offer the center-back the chance to prove he was worth the £75 million ($100 million) it cost to sign him from Southampton in January.
“Any player who arrived at this club, they want to play in these games, they want to be under this kind of pressure, they want to get trophies,” he said.
“I don’t think I have been bought to win the Champions League final. I have been bought to hopefully get the best out of myself and the best out of the team with the help of everyone else.
“To be calm, that is sometimes a very good thing to have, but personally sometimes I have to learn, too.
“Against Manchester City in the away game (of the quarter final) I was a little bit too calm in the beginning, for example. That is something I have to learn as well. To be in the final right now, it has been a crazy journey.”
Watching last season’s final between Real and Juventus, van Dijk realized just how much he wanted to be a part of the competition — and why Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were the club for him, despite interest from City.
“I never really go to big games to watch as a fan, but I was in Cardiff,” he recalled. “The sponsors (Sony) hooked us up with two fantastic seats and it was two hours from where I used to live, so we thought, ‘let’s go.’
“From the moment I got there a lot of people in hospitality were Liverpool fans and they were saying, ‘join, please join.’