Atletico Madrid need Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak to stay to buck leaving trend
LYON, France -- Before the last of the red and white confetti had fallen to the ground after Atletico Madrid's Europa League winning celebrations on Wednesday evening, the issue of whether the team's two most important players -- Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak -- would still be at the club next season returned.
It has been ever thus at Atletico, where the list of recent past Europa League winners to move on has included David De Gea, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Arda Turan and Thibaut Courtois (on loan), the last four all leaving directly after celebrating a trophy.
Griezmann, who put in a matchwinning performance with his two goals in a 3-0 win, was clearly delighted to have finally won a major competition at the end of his fourth season as an Atletico player. But the 27-year-old, linked with a €100 million move to Barcelona, was controlled enough to bat away questions at the postmatch news conference about whether he would be the next to be tempted away.
"This is not the moment to talk about my future, I must enjoy having won a trophy," he said. "The truth is this was a dream for me, to win something with Atletico, with [coach Diego Simeone] and my friends and teammates. My relationship with the fans, the people at the club, gets stronger every year, which is why I give everything on the pitch."
Griezmann's commitment and contribution to Atletico's victory in the tournament has been clear. After the team dropped down to the competition after failing in the Champions League group stages, he scored in each Europa League round, including the key away goal in the semifinal at Arsenal, and a coolly-taken double which set up a comfortable victory over Marseille in the final.
Goalkeeper Oblak has been arguably just as vital -- with a string of outstanding saves when the 10 men were defending for their lives at the Emirates, and clean sheets kept in his other five Europa League appearances this season. Unlike Griezmann and other teammates including Koke and Saul Niguez, the Slovenia international has not had a payrise since joining from Benfica in 2014, and clearly feels one is due.
"I've a contract here, and I don't know what will happen in the future," Oblak said in the Stade de Lyon mixed zone Wednesday night. "It does not depend on me. I'm not thinking about anything else but Sunday, when we need a point to finish second [in La Liga]."
The 2017-18 season has been a challenging one for everybody at Atletico. Even before it started the mood was badly affected by Griezmann spending most of last summer flirting with Manchester United. A FIFA transfer ban meant new arrivals Diego Costa and Vitolo could not be used for the first six months. And the move from their much loved Estadio Vicente Calderon home to the shiny but impersonal Wanda Metropolitano took a lot of getting used to.
All of that contributed directly to 2014 and 2016 Champions League finalists exiting the competition by December. And that meant money had to be quickly raised -- with five players leaving in January and February. The Europa League was not where Simeone and his team wanted to be, but their achievement in refocusing their objectives was impressive.
The hope now among many at the club -- verbalised by captain Gabi after the game -- is that such tangible reward for their efforts will persuade Griezmann and Oblak to stay one more season at least. The extra prize money and commercial benefits from winning a major European trophy might also help club CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin find a few extra million euros for both too. It would be useful if Atletico do get at least a point at home to Eibar on Saturday evening, to finish ahead of Real Madrid in La Liga for only the second time the last 21 years.
Simeone himself regularly maintains that his most important goal is constant incremental year on year improvement. But the Argentine had to accept that having something concrete to celebrate was really important on Wednesday night.
"We had to keep going," Simeone said. "The best way to win is to keep insisting. We had already lost two Champions League finals, one in the last minute, and then penalties. But these kids are the living history of Atletico, they are marvellous. We have won again, which was what we needed."
The much sought after coach has been firm in maintaining that he has no plans to leave Atletico any time soon, and speculation he might be interested in taking over at Chelsea or Arsenal this summer looks wide of the mark. The Champions League remains the Holy Grail for Simeone and this side, and not losing their two best players is vital to their chances of making it back to the 2018-19 final, which just happens to be hosted at their Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Neither Griezmann nor Oblak appeared to be swayed by their feelings however, even amid the emotional party scenes on Wednesday night. Simeone, Gil Marin, Gabi and others were all doing their best to persuade the pair to stay, but the silence over their future plans suggests both are still leaning towards leaving.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan