How Real Madrid need a player like Joao Felix

3 months ago

Atletico Madrid, led by Joao Felix, are Spain's best bet for a Champions League winner this season - particularly as Real Madrid crumble.

There was more grace, guile, poise and potency about Joao Felix than there was about any of Real Madrid's players on Tuesday.

Soon after Zinedine Zidane's troubled side were traipsing off the pitch in Kiev, reeling from a 2-0 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk that could spell the end of a 23-year run in the Champions League knockouts, Atletico Madrid and their Portuguese star were showing why they are LaLiga's best bet for the tournament in 2020-21.

Two years ago, Real Madrid won their third Champions League in a row, their own imperious Portuguese number seven at the head of a team that, if outplayed, would never be outfought, and would always have their talisman to bail them out of trouble.

There is still a team in the Spanish capital like that, but now it is one bedecked in red and white.

Atleti could not hold onto their lead against Champions League holders Bayern Munich, but Tuesday's 1-1 draw was still a positive enough result. Avoid defeat on matchday six in Salzburg, and Diego Simeone's side will be into the last 16. Unlike their city rivals, it's still in their hands.

Perhaps more importantly, the game at the Wanda Metropolitano was another showcase of Felix's growing influence. The young man who looked a €126million misfit last season is fast becoming Atleti's heartbeat.

This was far from the Bayern side that thrashed Atleti 4-0 on matchday one, that had won 15 Champions League matches in a row. Manuel Neuer, Leon Goretzka and Robert Lewandowski were rested; there was no Kingsley Coman, no Joshua Kimmich or Alphonso Davies, and Thomas Muller, whose penalty snatched a point, was a second-half substitute.

That should not detract from Felix's display, or the daunting fact that there is still more to come. The 21-year-old offered flashes of brilliance that showcased all of his best talents: an impudent backheel out of the air to set up a Yannick Carrasco shot, a graceful bit of juggling to spark a counter-attack, a thunderous shot that crashed off the crossbar.

There was also the darting run and composed finish to break the deadlock in the first half. He has now scored seven goals in seven starts for Atleti, as many as in his previous 29.

Felix at last looks a young man ready and willing to be Atletico's focal point. No player had more shots (three) or created more chances (two) in the match, while only Koke – reborn this season under Simeone – attempted more passes in the attacking half.

Felix also contested six aerial duels, more than anyone else, and won back possession four times. Not bad going for one of the smallest, slightest players on the pitch, and one previously decried as an expensive square peg in Simeone's unyielding system.

Atleti might not be certain of progressing but, unlike Madrid, they are at least moving forward. It's Felix who is lighting their way, and showing Zidane the very thing he is missing.