La Liga returns with a bang this weekend as unbeaten Atletico Madrid – in third place, three points behind leaders Real Sociedad but with two games in hand – host an inconsistent Barcelona looking to escape from mid-table mediocrity.
Luis Suarez was set to hog the headlines in his first game against his former club, but the Uruguay striker has been ruled out after contracting Covid-19 during the international break.
Atletico, though, still have plenty more attacking weapons to provide a major test to Barca’s unreliable defence on Saturday (20:00 GMT), including a young talent who is looking increasingly capable of living up to his status as the third most expensive transfer in history.
Felix flowering into superstar
Losing Suarez after his positive coronavirus test earlier this week is clearly a blow to Atletico, because the former Barca frontman has made a strong start to life with his new club.
After netting twice in 20 minutes on his debut, Suarez has continued to lead the line in his usual belligerent fashion and is La Liga’s joint-second leading scorer, with his tally of five goals in 375 minutes giving him the best goals-per-minute record in the league.
However, approaching the age of 34, Suarez is clearly only a short-term measure and Atletico’s frustration at his unavailability on Saturday is tempered by the fact they can still call upon a fast-rising star who has the team’s future at his feet: Joao Felix.
The Portugal forward, who turned 21 last week, was only moderately successful during his first season with Atletico in 2019-20, scoring nine goals and never appearing fully to earn the trust of demanding manager Diego Simeone.
In the opening weeks of the new campaign, however, he has shown exactly why Atletico forked out £113m to sign him from Benfica by delivering a series of spectacular performances.
Felix’s effortlessly elegant technical talent has always been obvious, but he is now also getting himself more consistently involved in the action and providing a decisive final product inside the box.
With seven goals and two assists for Atletico, he has nearly matched last season’s output already, and he has also shone on the international stage by netting his first senior goals for Portugal – including a strike in Tuesday’s 3-2 win at Croatia.
International team-mate and Liverpool forward Diogo Jota has said he believes Felix can eventually become Cristiano Ronaldo’s long-term successor as the focal point of Portugal’s attack, indicating the growing confidence that the young star is ready to fulfil his potential.
Felix’s enhanced status this season is reflected in the fact his average number of ball touches per game has increased from 40 to 57, and with eight goals in his past seven matches, this future superstar is in the best form of his career.
Transformed Llorente offers new dimension
Another key element of Atletico’s forward line is the unlikely figure of a man whose career has been totally transformed by a thrilling night at Anfield: Marcos Llorente.
When Llorente was bought for £35.9m from Real Madrid in the summer of 2019, he was a defensive midfielder, signed as a replacement for Manchester City-bound Rodri.
But Simeone gradually became more impressed by his attacking capabilities, leading to Llorente replacing Diego Costa from the bench against Liverpool in March to score twice in nine minutes, knocking the Champions League holders out of the 2019-20 competition.
Before that remarkable evening, Llorente had scored only six goals in 162 career appearances. But he is now one of La Liga’s most effective forwards, lining up on the right wing but with the freedom to attack the box as often as possible.
Llorente has registered eight goals and six assists in 23 outings since Anfield and, in the 4-0 win over Cadiz before the international break, he became only the second player – after Lionel Messi – to record both a goal and an assist in four different games this year.
His individual transformation from defensive midfielder into all-action forward is a neat metaphor for a wider process of change at Atletico because, after years of accusations that he is too negative, Simeone now seems intent on creating a far more attack-minded team.
Atletico are the second-highest scorers in La Liga with 17 goals in seven games, and their average of 4.86 shots on target per game is second only to Barcelona.
Simeone has a wide range of options at his disposal and is certainly not solely relying on Suarez for goalscoring, shown by his decision to leave the Uruguayan out of his squad for the recent 3-1 win at Osasuna to allow him to rest.
Suarez’s likely replacement this weekend is dynamic and versatile Argentine Angel Correa, whose four assists is the joint highest in La Liga, while Costa is also expected to be available after missing the past month with a hamstring injury.
Felix and Llorente, though, will be the main men. And maintaining their strong start by claiming a commanding victory over Barca would be the ideal way to prove that Atletico’s new style could lead to great things.