After breaking Barcelona and Real Madrid’s stranglehold on the La Liga to win the league title last season, there was concern from officials at Atletico Madrid that their hard work could be undone by the departures of key personnel last summer.
Standout goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois returned to his parent club, Chelsea, and defender Filipe Luis followed the big Belgian to Stamford Bridge. This meant that manager Diego Simeone’s defense – which had been the calling card of his teams in previous seasons – would be missing two huge components.
But the biggest loss to Simeone’s squad was that of striker Diego Costa, who decided to leave the Spanish champions in order to join Jose Mourinho’s side in London.
While Simeone’s philosophy doesn’t place importance on just one player, Costa’s departure left Atletico Madrid without a combative presence, and more importantly their number one scoring threat.
The Brazilian-born striker scored 36 goals in all competitions for Los Colchoneros during the 2013-14 campaign, and the importance of his scoring can’t be underestimated.
Atletico Madrid won more games last season by one goal than any other team in Europe – seventeen matches (seven by a score of 1-0).
Costa accounted for 33% of the team’s goals and had double the amount of Atletico’s second highest goal scorer, Raul Garcia, who finished with seventeen goals. In fact there were only three players on Simeone’s team last season to reach double digits in scoring: Costa (36), Garcia (17) and David Villa (15).
So the striker’s absence was of major concern to the club.
But Simeone and club officials knew very early on that Costa was intending to leave for England and had already begun the process of finding his replacement. It’s something the La Liga club had grown accustom to over the years as they struggled to manage their massive debt. Selling off their star players and finding young or untapped talent was part of Atletico’s business plan. So the club were once again in the market looking replace a key component.
That’s where Mario Mandzukic came in. The 28-year-old Croatian forward spent the previous two seasons with German champions Bayern Munich, scoring 33 goals in just 54 appearances.
Despite tying for the team lead in scoring last season (26 goals), Mandzukic was left out Pep Guardiola’s 18-man match day squad and starting eleven numerous times last season. The Bayern boss apparently questioned the striker’s work rate in training, and following the DFB-Pokal final – which Mandzukic was dropped from – the striker asked for a transfer.
In July 2014, the Croatian signed a four-year deal with Atletico Madrid, leading fans and club officials to celebrate because they knew they had found the man to replace Diego Costa and spearhead Atletico’s attack.
Since his arrival in Spain, Mandzukic has not disappointed. Although his playing style is very different from the club’s previous number one goal scorer, the Croatian striker shares some distinct similarities.
Mandzukic is a massive physical presence on the pitch. While Costa made the most of his size and battled teams with his brute strength and desire, Mandzukic’s tall frame is built for combat.
He also shares Costa’s ‘verbal expertise’. Both strikers are known for getting in the ear of their opponents in order to take them out of their game.
But most importantly, Mandzukic has been Atletico Madrid’s target man; the man who has carried Costa’s mantle as the spearhead of Simeone’s attack.
While the 28-year-old lacks the pace that Costa possesses, he makes up for it through his near-perfect technique, a fantastic first touch and an instinctive eye for goal.
Mandzukic has also benefited from his growing partnership with France international, Antoine Griezmann. The winger’s pace and passing, combined with his Croatian teammates ability inside the box have helped Atletico Madrid stay withing striking distance of the league lead.
And shortly before the close of the January window the club added Fernando Torres into the mix. The 30-year-old’s arrival has relieved some of the load Mandzukic was carrying for the club.
Prior to Torres’ arrival, it was hard for Simeone to take his number one striker out of the lineup because Atletico’s other attacking options just weren’t performing up to snuff. But since his move from AC Milan, Torres has allowed Mandzukic to be rested, which will benefit the striker in the long run.
To this point in the season, Mandzukic has scored 19 goals in 30 games in all competitions. Since the return from winter break, Atletico Madrid have been playing some of their best football – topped off by their 4-0 derby defeat of Real Madrid last weekend.
The club are currently in third place, just four points off the league lead with plenty of time left in the campaign.
It’s safe to say, Atletico Madrid wouldn’t be where they are now on the La Liga table if Mario Mandzukic hadn’t fit in so perfectly at the club.
Programming note: Celta Vigo vs. Atletico Madrid will be shown LIVE on Sunday starting at 2:55pm EST on beIN SPORTS en español and DishWorld.
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