Their talisman is gone and with it an era is over but can Atletico Madrid’s latest signing provide that missing spark?
With shadows of a disastrous season still lurking, summer has brought Atletico Madrid fans yet more misery as their hero and icon, Sergio Aguero, forced his way out of La Liga’s great underachievers. Now at Manchester City, Aguero’s departure was on a similar note to that of Fernando Torres – an Atleti talent desiring bigger and better things. The acrimonious break-up of Aguero and Atleti was always on the cards though.
In an inconsistent season stained by dressing room unrest, Atleti struggled to seventh place after a late surge with Aguero firing warning shots at the club’s hierarchy all season. Only increasing their ire and sense of betrayal, Agureo recently crystallised his love of former club Independiente and claimed they are the only side he is eternally loyal to.
Under their returning manager Gregorio Manzano, the 2010 Europa League winners have endured a testy summer. Atletico have been dragged through the mire and the rapid departure of confident goalkeeper David de Gea to Manchester United only added insult to injury.
But in one of Manzano’s summer signings, there could lie the remedy to the Madrid club’s crisis. New signing, striker Adrian Lopez is in the most electrifying form of his life. An unerring finisher, the former Deportivo La Coruna man scored five goals in the recent European Under-21 Championships and could potentially fill the yawning Aguero sized hole at the heart of his new club.
If Aguero was the miffed star digging his heels in whilst his less revered teammates lagged behind, Adrian is a buoyed rookie eager to make the step up. Having spent the lion’s share of his career out on loan with varying levels of success, Adrian, 23, is still relatively inexperienced with less than 150 appearances under his belt.
However, he wasn’t fazed by his first taste of Europa League football and an Atletico debut earlier this month. His struggling, previously unconfident side ripped apart the premise for another calamity and defeated Norwegian side Stromsgodset 4-1 on aggregate in the third and final qualifying round.
In these first two matches at the Madrid club, Adrian has woven himself into the fabric of Atleti and already boasts an astute understanding with forward Jose Antonio Reyes. A slighter build than the stocky brute Aguero, Adrian clinched assists for both of his side’s goals in their 2-1 victory in the first leg against Stromsgodset. His resourcefulness shone as he cushioned a high ball on his chest and casually guided the ball into the onrushing Reyes for the first.
Reyes’ second was as much Adrian’s as it was his. Adrian killed a high ball with his instep, eliminating two defenders with his first touch. With his undying love and care of the ball, he shifted his weight to the left, waited, and rolled the ball to Reyes just inside the box. A beautiful chipped finish and it was 2-0.
Agureo at times carried his side through the trenches but Adrian is the archetypal team player. As well as thoughtful team-play and assists, Adrian has also shown his goalscoring prowess for Los Rojiblancos. In the second leg against Stromsgodset, he made it 1-0 and again exploited his telepathy with Reyes. Formerly of Arsenal, Reyes’ beautifully weighted through-ball was pounced upon by Adrian, who poked home from close range undeterred by the keeper hurtling off his line.
This was a goal eerily similar to his first against the Czechs in the Euros. Only this time, it was Juan Mata who picked the lock with a dynamic pass through the defence. Adrian then slotted it across the keeper without looking up. With regards to these cool, first-time finishes, it’s easy to compare Adrian to his legendary compatriot, Raul. Of course, both earn their money by circling the danger areas with intent as opposed to always wanting the ball, but Adrian is more dynamic with the ball at his feet than Raul.
His second in his Czech demolition act showed this. After receiving another wonderfully delivered ball from Juan Mata, Adrian trapped the ball, shifted it out of his body with optimum control and retention, then firmly side-footed into the bottom right hand corner – all this whilst being harried by defenders.
It’s this unyielding, silky care of the ball that leads Adrian to comparisons to his countrymen. His skills and delicate, subtle touches stir up images of the likes of David Silva, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas. Adrian has not yet appeared for the full Spain side, but looks inherently ingrained into their blueprint for football, particularly due to his small build – just 5 foot 7.
Atleti fans can expect a huge change from the physical machine that Aguero is. Unlike the Argentina forward who is given a licence to roam, Adrian cuts a cunning figure on the shoulder of the last defender. Aguero is not as much of a team player as Adrian either. And after a season of rebellion and squabbling – rumour has it players formed a pact to not pass to Diego Forlan – a hungry unfinished gem could be just what Atleti need.
In the recent Europa League tie against Stromsgodset, Atleti finally appeared a well-oiled unit. Even Forlan snapped out of his sulk, providing a delightful ballooned pass to Adrian before Reyes’ first against Stromsgodset. Adrian has provided a catalyst for success for Atleti but the hard work is still to come. With the new La Liga season on the horizon, the Rojiblancos may have found the answer to the Aguero conundrum in the shape of Adrian.
Alistair is regular at IBWM and can be followed on Twitter here