Karim Benzema will not play in the Madrid derby. Jan Oblak will. And as for Antoine Griezmann, he’ll do both. You never know exactly what will happen when Atlético Madrid host Real Madrid, not any more at least, but on Sunday night at the Metropolitano there is one thing you can be reasonably sure of: on the hour, the man wearing the red and white shirt with the No 8 on the back will be standing at the side of the pitch, glancing up at the clock, waiting to run on, his time having rolled around again, which it always does.
Every three or four days it is the same and although they did not expect to still be here deep into September and would like it to change soon, it isn’t going to just yet.
On Saturday, Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that Benzema, unable to train with his teammates, will not make it while Diego Simeone confirmed that Oblak had recovered from injury and will. Without actually saying so, which is how he always says it, how he has to say it, Simeone also confirmed that Griezmann would get half an hour, plus added time. “For the moment, we’re carrying on like this,” the Atlético coach said.
Carry on might be the right words, too. Griezmann is not the only one waiting for the inevitable, almost a meme now; everyone else is, too. Atlético have played seven games. Their joint top scorer this season, who has scored eight times and provided five assists in his career against Madrid, has not started any. He has come on as a substitute in all of them. The minute in which he was introduced tell the story: 62, 62, 64, 63, 61, 63, 62.
Griezmann is on a two-year loan from Barcelona with an obligatory €40m purchase clause at the end, if he plays more than 45 minutes in half the games he is available. Atlético cannot afford to pay €40m – and Barcelona cannot really afford for them not to, still less to be stuck with him – and so, after he was a virtual ever-present last season, they are now “not playing” him by playing him for fewer minutes than are needed to count. (Coming on with half an hour left is playing safe, with added time.)
It is not a good situation, damaging for everyone and risking eclipsing everything, although it is designed to apply pressure on Barcelona to renegotiate and is better than the alternative: not having Griezmann at all. The club would have preferred to release him; the coach, though, insisted on him staying, reluctantly convincing him to accept a reduced role, at least temporarily.
Griezmann has done so with remarkable restraint, shrugging “it is what it is”, while Simeone admitted: “I’m a club man.” At the same time as the president, Enrique Cerezo, claimed the coach could pick who he wants. It helps that it was worked reasonably well: Griezmann has three goals. “The reality is that he is playing very well in 30 minutes. In 60, we don’t know,” the manager said after he scored the winner against Porto.
The reality is that this is not what he wants and after defeat at Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday, for the first time Simeone pointedly said he would prefer him to have more minutes. The cracks are showing. “The team plays better with Griezmann on the pitch,” Simeone said on Wednesday. On Saturday, he described Griezmann’s introduction as giving Atlético an “extra step, more ‘hierarchy’, greater combination”.
Yet asked if the derby may be a night where it is worth racking up a match, or if perhaps this was the kind of occasion when Griezmann’s absence annoys him even more, Simeone responded by saying: “[Álvaro] Morata and João [Félix] are playing well. Griezmann is playing well in 30 minutes.”
If that means Atlético should improve in the second half – at times, it can feel almost as if the game itself is waiting for Griezmann, as if it does not really count until his inevitable introduction – Ancelotti knows it is coming and can prepare. Besides, the same is true of Real.
Although they are without Benzema, Madrid scored four in his absence last weekend. Rodrygo, likely to be chosen ahead of Eden Hazard, was superb. Fede Valverde is flying. Casemiro has not been missed yet. Luka Modric turned 37 last week, not that you would know it. Vinícius Júnior, especially, is playing superbly.
Ancelotti’s side have won eight out of eight – and it is the second half that has been the key. The aggregate score of the first half of games is Madrid 6 Opponents 5; the aggregate score of the second halves is 16-0. “We have a strategy, which is called the tiredness strategy,” Ancelotti joked. “We make them think that we are tired and then in the second half … It will be competitive like it always is against Atlético. I don’t expect anything new: a good game, with an open result.”
If that part of the plot is guaranteed – cometh the hour, cometh the Griezmann – the rest has to be played out. “With derbies, you always think it is important how you come into it and I would have preferred to do so with a win in midweek,” Simeone said. “But when the game starts it’s a totally new story. A new film begins and we don’t know how it ends, which is why it’s so fun.”