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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Memphis gives Atlético hope to do the impossible: win LaLiga

Following their 1-1 draw in the Madrid derbi, Atlético Madrid should have absolutely no chance of winning LaLiga. By the same token, though, there should have been zero chance that their eccentric Dutch striker Memphis Depay would either fit in at or become important to Los Rojiblancos, yet he has.

Therein lies their hope. Unexpected things do happen.

It was thanks to the maverick Dutchman that Diego Simeone’s team are now precisely the same distance behind Real Madrid as they were at this identical stage last season. During the remaining 15 matches of 2022-23, Atléti closed to within one point of their city enemies, having been, like now, 10 behind with 23 games played.

It would take a pretty remarkable turn of circumstances for them not only to emulate but better those statistics — and I mean no disrespect to either Girona or Barcelona by not mentioning them in this equation — but if magic is to happen, then Memphis is their man.

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The simple — perhaps simplistic — way of looking at this is that Atléti have only been able to use their mercurial, frustrating, but thrilling striker for a brutally low 643 minutes across all competitions this season. His added-time assist to let Marcos Llorente score the equaliser on Sunday meant that he has produced a goal contribution every 71 minutes on the pitch for Simone’s team. Pretty extraordinary.

At this stage, LaLiga, despite the fact that Madrid’s other team really should be competing to win it, must be regarded as their second or third priority. It’s sad, but true.

On Wednesday, they face a daunting, but nevertheless winnable, Copa del Rey semifinal against Athletic Club (3:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). Hot on the heels of that appetising examination comes a pair of huge tests against Serie A leaders Inter Milan in the Champions League.

This being the club that was until recently known as “Los Pupas” (the club that tended to injure itself), there is a perfectly good argument that Los Rojiblancos go on to lose to both rivals, but I don’t think they will. My logic, just as when I argued at the beginning of the season that they could, probably should, win the title is largely based on Memphis.

This tigerish, idiosyncratic, visionary, inventive bundle of energy and aggression is not Atlético’s most important player, but he’s become the guy who makes the difference. He’s the guy who possesses the right stuff.

So even though I stick to my argument that he really shouldn’t be the right man to succeed at this club, when did logic ever rule in football? By which I mean that Memphis is managed by a manager in Simeone who is risk averse, agitated, fretful and almost exclusively keen on players who do exactly — and I mean exactly — what he tells them to. By a long distance, this does not describe the 30-year-old Dutchman.

However, Memphis has kind of become the pineapple on your pizza. Who first came up with the idea of putting pungent, tangy, fruit on top of this staple Italian dish? It seems ludicrous. At this stage, however, there are people who would not dream of eating pizza without a pineapple topping and, equally, the same number of people who are right now making pretend barfing gestures into their hands.

In the UK, we call this type of footballer a “Marmite player,” named after the yeast spread that some detest and others worship. That particular description doesn’t travel the entire world, but the pineapple idea does.

I mean to say that, at this moment, Memphis has become the perfect complement to a side that has numerous above-adequate functioning parts, two or three standout elements, one genius (Antoine Griezmann), but definitely lacks anarchy, killer instinct and sufficient amounts of daring.

At the Bernabéu, Atlético certainly showed the characteristic that has been their No. 1 personality trait since Simeone took over 12 years ago. Even though Madrid played better football, stimulated the roars of their adoring crowd and very nearly stretched Atléti to their breaking point, the fact remains that every man in red and white fought with obstinate stubbornness to cling on to some prospect of winning.

Although Atlético can’t claim that they were either the more attractive or more dominant side, they generated a hatful of very scoreable chances, Andriy Lunin played extremely well to keep them at bay and, had they been ruthless, they could certainly have left the lion’s den with a smash-and-grab win. Their eventual draw owed a huge amount to the fact that Memphis is clever about which spaces he occupies, to the fact that Stefan Savic picked him out nicely with a long ball and to the fact that the impish, inventive striker nodded the ball up in the air in the full knowledge that Madrid badly lacked height and experience in central defence.

It was visionary, clever — not the provenance of ordinary blue-collar footballers. Llorente reacted, Nacho and Dani Carvajal didn’t, and Atléti had their point.

It’s not simply because Memphis showed up on the big occasion that I’m making a fuss of him, though. He is a remarkable man who embodies one of the things that all of us love about elite sport: the competitor who uses adversity to achieve adoration.

As a kid, he truly had the most desperate experiences. Life nearly broke him.

He is far from unique in the fact that his father walked out on the family home, but the sad truth is that this tearaway kid was exposed to brutal racism, emotional abuse and bullying in the new home he was forced to live in (with 15 step-siblings) when his mum moved in with what proved to be a deeply flawed man in an attempt to rebuild her life and find love. He tells these tales himself in his autobiography.

Without dwelling on these circumstances too much, given that they happened nearly 20 years ago, the fact is that Memphis went rogue, his mother temporarily ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and he needed a reeducation by a life coach imposed on him by PSV Eindhoven. He remains to this day, as he expresses it, “damaged.”

Maybe his inherent DNA was already going to turn Memphis into an extraordinarily creative, visionary footballer. Maybe. But the guy who holds the key to Atléti adding volcanic and dangerous invention to their relatively one-dimensional football for the remainder of this season, during which they could actually still win the fabled treble, is also now a survivor, a fighter, and as he refers to himself, a lion.

I’m guessing that this is one of the things that has made the deeply unlikely marriage between Simeone and Memphis actually beneficial and potentially exceptional.

The greatest likelihood when they came together was antipathy, misbehaviour and a nasty, brutish, short relationship. Those aren’t the reasons Atléti have been missing their talisman this season, though.

He, and the almost equally important Reinildo Mandava, have lost out on gigantic swathes of this season because of injury. Now that Memphis is back, he has contributed late goals for vital wins, he has added an alternative to the already-fruitful partnership between Griezmann and Álvaro Morata, but he’s also brought wit, entertainment and an air of arrogant unpredictability, which you can clearly see scares the life out of rivals who are already ragged and tired when this guy comes on in the latter part of matches.

I’m not arguing that Memphis can rip apart either Athletic or Inter on his own — far from it. But if, for example, Atléti are to really close the gap on Madrid in the race for the title, they need to exceed how they performed in the last 15 matches last season, which would mean them this time winning 12, drawing two and losing just once. They’ll need their magician.

Incidentally, it would also mean Carlo Ancelotti’s team losing at least the same number of matches as they did from this stage last term: five. Not looking probable.

Regardless of whether that happens, Memphis remains the special element that can rescue Atlético on their dull days and make them completely irrepressible on their special days. That stat of him producing a goal or an assist every 71 minutes already stands out, but if he can begin to produce the same level of killer efficacy between now and the end of the season, then there is no reason why Los Rojiblancos can’t compensate for what has been a sub-par LaLiga campaign by winning one or more of the other two trophies still available to them.

Finally, and I think this is too often forgotten about, Memphis simply makes it worthwhile watching Atlético play football. Part of my job is to tell you about where you’re likely to find fun, satisfaction, surprise and enjoyment. I hope I’ve made my case clearly.

Whether he ends the season by covering Atléti in trophies, medals and glory, please, I beseech you, make time to enjoy Memphis. He’s magic.

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