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Magnificent Griezmann: How Frenchman has gone from flop to Barcelona leader

COMMENT: Goalscorer. Creator... leader. This was the player. Antoine Griezmann. This was the player Barcelona shelled out €120m for eighteen months ago...

If the eight-goal thriller at Granada was a Copa tie for the ages, then for careers - for Antoine Griezmann's career - this was a watershed night. The Frenchman was magnificent. Outstanding. This was the player, running around in an Atletico Madrid shirt, who found his way onto the Ballon d'Or dais - and then some. The ability was always there. The quality. The flair. But no-one counted on the leadership. The cajoling. The drive. Everything Griezmann showed this night at the Los Carmenes - both on the pitch and at the touchline.

On paper it reads two goals and an assist. But that doesn't do Griezmann's performance justice. At 2-0 down, it was Griezmann who dragged Barcelona back into the tie with a scrambling near post effort. In extra-time, it was he who put Barca in front for the first time in the game. With his legs having gone 100 minutes, he still had enough spring to outjump two taller Granada defenders and plant a header home. A goal Roberto Soldado, leading the line at the opposite end of the pitch, would've been proud of.

And then came the assist. There's long been talk of Lionel Messi being 'an alien', someone from another planet. But this piece of skill from Griezmann was not of this world. Controlling the ball with his right boot, Griezmann managed to clip it across the face of goal with the outside of his left. The ball sitting perfectly for Jordi Alba to rifle home a volley and secure the visitors a famous 5-3 triumph.

This wasn't the Griezmann of barely a month ago. Left on the bench for Real Valladolid. Hooked midway through the second-half against Elche. The World Cup winner was spiraling. The debate around Griezmann wasn't so much how coach Ronald Koeman could help his forward find something near his best form, but rather how the club could find a buyer quickly enough before his valuation hit rock bottom.

But on Wednesday night's performance, Barca not only have the Griezmann of Atleti back, they have a man going into his 30's ready to shoulder the burden of being a leader - a high-profile leader - for the biggest club on the planet.


Griezmann celebrates his second goal against Granada with young teammate Riqui Puig (L)

Indeed, one moment against Granada encapsulated what has snuck up on many of us regarding Griezmann and his status inside the club. Francisco Trincao, handed a start on the night by Koeman, was on the end of verbal volley from Alba. There was nothing nasty or malicious from the senior player, but his demands for greater concentration could be heard from the empty stands. In response, it was Griezmann who urged Alba to rein it in, gesturing to the left-back to calm down. The Frenchman knows Trincao is struggling for confidence and was eager to keep the winger's spirits up after he'd seen one shot hit the frame of Granada's goal.

We're now learning of how highly Griezmann is thought of inside the dressing room. Young teammates like Trincao, Pedri, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati look upon Griezmann as a protective big brother. At Christmas, he surprised every member of the squad with a gift. And before then in Kiev, Griezmann organised a birthday celebration for Pedri. This isn't the fragile, isolated character as portrayed in the press this season. Nor the personality intimidated by the presence of Messi and his senior teammates, as claimed by some former confidants.

And you can see it in his interviews. There's now a presence about Griezmann. A belief; a self-assurance that wasn't there before Christmas. He isn't jovial or jokey, instead there's a quiet confidence about him and the way he delivers his words. Any previous doubts about being a Barcelona player have now vanished.

Griezmann has kicked off 2021 with a bang. In January he ended with numbers as good as anyone in Europe: five goals and four assists - and that was before Wednesday night's display. The Copa thriller simply a case of the forward maintaining this momentum.

And we refer to him as a forward, rather than a striker, because that's how Koeman is employing Griezmann. In a new 4-3-3 system, the Dutchman has played Griezmann on the left-side of attack - and it's working. But this revival runs deeper than simply a switch of formation. It's the approach of Griezmann which has changed.

Jorge Valdano, the former Real Madrid coach and sporting director, is taking credit. And to be fair, the World Cup winner might have a point. It was on Valdano's show that Griezmann broke his silence about all that was being said about him and his form. The chat on Universo Valdano being held before Christmas. The decision to speak with Valdano, rather than a Barca-friendly outfit, irked some. But no-one could accuse Griezmann of taking the soft option.

And the gist of the interview was that he'd had enough. He'd had enough about claims of a rift with Messi; about being sidelined by the rest of the squad; and about regretting his decision to move to Barca. He was going to speak up more. Show himself more. And you fancy, forcing himself out of his shell has done wonders - not only for the player, but also the club.

And again it has to be noted, Valdano's influence - it can be argued - was still being felt at the Los Carmenes this week. In the aftermath of the interview, Valdano revealed he'd offered some practical on-field advice to Griezmann, which included, "If you receive inside the area, stop it with your right foot and cross it with your left," which is exactly what Griezmann did to set up Alba's super volley in the final minutes of extra-time.

Whatever - or whomever - the influences on this turnaround, Barca are benefiting. With all the controversy around contract leaks, presidential campaigns and on-off transfers, the revival of Griezmann has gone largely unnoticed. That is, until Granada and Wednesday night.

This was a performance of a Ballon d'Or contender. Of a major player at a giant club. Griezmann was everything Barca's former management team believed they were buying. Now we know why they shelled out that €120m eighteen months ago...

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Chris Beattie
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