Atletico reaping the rewards as Felix finds his feet
“It’s clear that he’s growing,” said Diego Simeone, after Joao Felix scored his third and fourth goals in five days last month to put Atletico Madrid within touching distance of the top of the Liga table.
Felix’s brace against Osasuna would have been a hat-trick had his second penalty of the game not struck the post, but it said something that a 20-year-old, in only third professional season, was taking them.
When Felix made his debut for Atletico Madrid in August last year, he won a penalty after a sensational run that humiliated three Getafe defenders, with a nutmeg, a roll of the studs and then a dash bringing 68,000 fans to their feet.
Felix carried the ball under his arm towards the spot but Kieran Trippier was the penalty taker, and he missed.
A year later, Felix is not just in charge of penalties but the driving force of a rejuvenated Atletico team and perhaps even the sparkle that could carry them to the Spanish title.
If they win their two games in hand, Atletico will be three points clear at the top of the table.
Things are also going well in Europe for Atletico. They visit Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League on Wednesday, sitting second in Group A, behind Bayern Munich.
Felix scored his first Champions League goal in this fixture last season.
“Joao has always delivered important moments,” Simeone said earlier this month. “What is making everyone talk now is the consistency he is showing in his game, in his work.”
Felix has been compared to Rui Costa, Johan Cruyff, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘Important for the team’
In Portugal, he was dubbed the ‘Menino de Ouro’ – the Golden Boy – and it was not long before many, including Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, were labelling him Ronaldo’s natural successor.
Atletico paid 126 million euros to sign Felix from Benfica and when he arrived in Madrid, he was unveiled in the Prado Museum, the message obvious: one of the world’s most talented artists, ready to be viewed by the world.
Yet his first year was an anti-climax. The spell-binding moments, like that one against Getafe, grew increasingly irregular, overshadowed by injuries, forgettable performances and the sense of a player who didn’t fit.
Reports in Spain and Portugal claimed Felix was hamstrung by Atletico’s system and fatigued by Simeone’s demands. Marca put Felix on a list of the most disappointing signings of the season.
Atletico were in transition too, a new defence meant the team’s platform had to rebuild while up front they had lost Antoine Griezmann, their top scorer and talisman, to Barcelona.
But just as Atletico are one year further along in their renovation, Felix is one year more mature, the growth of his own confidence and the team’s stability proving mutually beneficial.
He has found a role too, no longer deployed off the right but more central although he is able to drop in off the left to find the pockets of space in which he thrives.
Luis Suarez is a potent partner able to occupy markers and, off the pitch, perhaps an example to follow. Koke has offered more creativity from central midfield than out wide.
“Felix has ended up finding both his best position on the pitch and the confidence to feel like the leader,” wrote Diario AS last week.
“Even the best player in the world has to find a place in the team,” said Simeone. “Freedom isn’t playing anywhere, it’s playing where you can be most important for the team.” Felix has found his place.