Diego Simeone insists Atletico Madrid "always need" Joao Felix despite dropping the "extraordinary" forward in recent weeks.

Joao Felix scored one and assisted another as LaLiga leaders Atletico beat Valencia 3-1 on Sunday, but it was the club-record signing's first league start of 2021.

The Portugal forward had not scored in LaLiga since November 7, costing him his place in Simeone's starting XI.

Even against Valencia, having attempted three shots and made two key passes, Joao Felix was withdrawn after 62 minutes for Angel Correa.

It was a move that paid off as Correa added the third goal - Joao Felix having set Luis Suarez clear for the crucial second - and Simeone hailed his changing frontline as evidence of competition in the Atleti squad.

"Joao Felix is an extraordinary player," Simeone said. "We always need him.

"The competition is high, beautiful, good. They are all eager to play and we will have to give the time we can for the good of the team.

"[Joao Felix] is growing, as he has been doing since he arrived. He is important and everything he gives us helps us."

In maintaining his unbeaten home record against Valencia, which now stands at six wins and four draws from 10 LaLiga matches, Simeone took Atleti seven points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand over second-placed Real Madrid.

The Rojiblancos coach was not interested in assessing the state of play at the summit, though, instead turning attention to Atleti's next test on Sunday.

"Cadiz, nothing more," Simeone replied when asked about the advantage over Madrid and Barcelona, who are a further three points back from Los Blancos.

Joao Felix promised he has much more to offer Atletico Madrid after marking his first LaLiga start of 2021 with a goal and an assist against Valencia.

Sunday's 3-1 victory saw Joao Felix both score and create a goal for the third time in a game this season, more than any other Atleti player.

But the other standout displays from the club's record signing had come in the early weeks of the campaign.

Between the November international break and this clash at the Wanda Metropolitano, Joao Felix netted just once in all competitions, also supplying a single assist.

That underwhelming stretch saw the Portugal forward lose his place in the league XI, but a tight turnaround from Thursday's win at Eibar provided an opportunity he duly grasped.

Joao Felix cancelled out Uros Racic's spectacular Valencia opener with a smart finish ahead of Thierry Correia, before his second-half pass set Luis Suarez away to score the second. Angel Correa, who replaced Joao Felix, completed the scoring.

A return to form gave Joao Felix the opportunity to discuss his recent trials, although there are no hard feelings towards coach Diego Simeone.

"I can give so much more," said the 21-year-old, who played 62 minutes. "No footballer likes being on the bench, but it also happened to me at Benfica.

"I know what I am capable of and, when the coach chooses me to play, I have to do my best. I am calm. Cholo [Simeone] does what is best for the team."

Atleti president Enrique Cerezo was asked by Movistar for his take on Joao Felix's rollercoaster season.

"No-one doubts that Joao Felix is a great player," he replied. "If the coach decides to change him, it will be for some reason.

"But he does not have to get angry or upset, like everyone else. Neither the players, the coach nor the fans want to lose, and when you lose, you get mad."

There has been nothing inconsistent about the form of Suarez, who has 12 goals in his first 15 LaLiga games for Atleti, the best start to life at a new club by any player in Spain's top flight since Cristiano Ronaldo netted 13 in 15 matches for Real Madrid in 2009-10.

Joao Felix described Suarez as "lethal", while Cerezo sees the veteran's sensational form as justification of their pursuit of the former Barcelona striker.

"We have always thought that Luis Suarez was the best centre-forward in Europe," he said. "We are lucky that he is with us. Everyone is happy."

Seven straight wins have moved Atleti seven points clear of rivals Madrid and they still have a game in hand, but Cerezo is not getting carried away.

"You can lose [the title] or you can win it," he said. "We are in the middle of the season and there is a lot left. We are first but there is a lot left.

"When there are three games left, I'll tell you if we are champions. The team is doing very well and the players know very well what they have to do: score goals and win games."

Atletico Madrid restored their seven-point advantage at the top of LaLiga with a seventh straight victory as Joao Felix led their latest fightback in the 3-1 success against Valencia.

Diego Simeone's side had overturned an early deficit to beat Eibar three days earlier and were at it again at the Wanda Metropolitano, this time inspired by Joao Felix.

After a superb long-range Uros Racic opener stunned Atleti, their record signing scored his first LaLiga goal since November 7 to level matters and later laid on the second for Luis Suarez, Thursday's two-goal hero.

Substitute Angel Correa - on for Joao Felix - made sure of another win, which represented a vital response to Real Madrid's own triumph on Saturday, maintaining a healthy gap while the Rojiblancos still have a game in hand.

A lively, open start perhaps out of keeping with a typical Atletico match saw early chances at both ends, with Jaume Domenech denying Jose Gimenez and Jan Oblak blocking from Manu Vallejo before the spectacular 11th-minute breakthrough.

The Atleti goalkeeper was this time helpless at full stretch as Racic sensationally picked out the top-right corner with a swirling left-footed strike from 25 yards.

But the hosts were level midway through the first half when Joao Felix beat Thierry Correia to a deep corner and prodded beyond Domenech as Valencia's appeals for a foul somewhere in a busy penalty area fell on deaf ears.

And Valencia were fortunate not to concede a penalty shortly before half-time as Thomas Lemar stole in ahead of a dozing Maxi Gomez to reach a bouncing ball inside the box, only to see the foul given the other way.

Atleti continued to turn the screw and had their reward eight minutes after the restart, with Gabriel Paulista inexplicably standing off Suarez as he took Joao Felix's pass and calmly finished into the bottom-right corner from the left side of the area.

The result never seemed in serious jeopardy thereafter and Marcos Llorente cut a low ball back for Correa to sweep in 18 minutes from time to seal the points.

Diego Simeone insists he is having no problem getting his message across to new signing Moussa Dembele thanks to the French language speakers already at Atletico Madrid.

Dembele joined Atletico on loan from Lyon last week until the end of the season, at which point LaLiga's leaders will have the option to buy him permanently for €33.5m.

The former Celtic striker has scored just once in 16 Ligue 1 appearances this season but comes in to bolster Atlei's forward line following the departure of Diego Costa.

Simeone has been impressed by Dembele's initial efforts in training, something he conceded has been made easier by the presence of Thomas Lemar, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Yannick Carrasco.

"Dembele just arrived a few days ago and he is trying to settle into the group," Simeone said ahead of Thursday's trip to Eibar, one of Atletico's games in hand on Real Madrid that could see them extend their advantage at the summit to seven points.

"Thankfully he has team-mates like Kondogbia, Carrasco and Lemar who are close to him and doing translations in order to make the communication quicker.

"We will have time to let him know what we want from him exactly, in the meantime we let him to settle in the best way with his  team-mates.

"I see him excited and happy. He is a number nine and we expect from him all the good we saw in him to bring him to Atletico Madrid."

Dembele's presence could further hinder Joao Felix's chances of getting back into Simeone's starting XI.

The record signing was a substitute in each of Atleti's past two LaLiga encounters and has not found the net since the 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on December 1.

Nevertheless, Simeone remains satisfied with the Portugal international's contributions.

"I ask Joao the same as always - to be involved in the group, as he is. Being competitive, as he has been in the last games," he added.

"He didn’t start the game, but he was important for the team from other positions. When he got in, he showed all his talent and quality. The team needs his skills."

Diego Simeone hinted at the idea he could leave Atletico Madrid at the end of the season after their awful Copa del Rey defeat to third-tier Cornella.

Simeone's LaLiga leaders exited the Copa on Wednesday, losing 1-0 to a goal from former Atletico B defender Adrian Jimenez.

Ricard Sanchez was sent off as Atleti slumped to a shock reverse swiftly described by the Spanish media as a "disaster" among the very worst of Simeone's 502 games in charge of the club.

The long-time coach named a strong side, including record signing Joao Felix, but saw his team remarkably unable to register a single shot on target.

Copa failings are a familiar story by now, though, with the Rojiblancos losing to Cultural Leonesa last season. Meanwhile, they have not beaten a fellow LaLiga outfit in the competition since seeing off Elche in January 2017.

Simeone recognised Atleti are struggling in one-off knockout matches - also losing in last season's Champions League to RB Leipzig - but added the surprising qualifier that it would be an issue to consider only if he was still at the helm next year.

"[Cornella] played better," he said. "In the whole game, what they wanted was always done better than what we wanted.

"They took advantage of the set-piece situations and immediately found the goal.

"The boys tried to compete in the best way. In the first half, we had more chances, and in the second, it was rockier. It got difficult after the red card.

"This competition has not given us satisfaction in recent years but solutions will have to be found if we are here next year."

Saul Niguez, captain on the night, identified the same problem as he added: "We apologise to the fans. We never throw away competitions, but in these single-game editions we are not doing well."

Given Atleti's struggles, the decision to replace Joao Felix with 18-year-old debutant Mario Soriano 15 minutes from time prompted some discussion.

But the Portugal international mustered only one shot, which was blocked, prior to his withdrawal and failed to create a single chance - unlike his replacement.

Joao Felix epitomised the visitors' display as he completed just 13 of his 21 attempted passes and lost possession 13 times, winning none of his three aerial duels.

The change still appeared a big call, yet Simeone explained his star forward was struggling with an ankle injury.

"He was hurt," Simeone said. "We looked for a fresher guy. He had a bruised ankle and we wanted to find a guy in good condition."

Diego Costa has reportedly asked Atletico Madrid to terminate his contract six months early in order to find a new club in the January transfer window. 

The Spain international - who agreed a return to Atleti in September 2017, though was not able to play for them until January the following year - has endured an injury plagued 2020-21 that has restricted him to just seven appearances. 

Atletico are said to be open to the possibility of offloading Costa should they find suitable cover, with Luis Suarez their only recognised out-and-out striker. 

But how much of a loss would Costa actually be? Using Opta data, the time feels right to take a look at his attacking output in closer detail.

SCORING FEATS AND HELPING OUT

Costa does not exactly boast the best scoring record for a player with his reputation, netting only 12 times in 61 LaLiga appearances since the start of 2018.

Among those to have played at least 38 times during that period - the equivalent of a whole season - he ranks way down in 46th place for goals per 90 minutes (0.29). That is below the likes of Joselu (0.3), Lucas Perez (0.32), Juanmi (0.34) and Pablo Sarabia (0.37) across a similar number of matches.

The 32-year-old has often been praised for getting the most out of others, though that is not exactly reflected in terms of his number of assists.

He has set up a team-mate on only nine occasions across those 61 outings - an average of 0.22 assists per 90 minutes.

For context, former team-mate Antoine Griezmann (0.23) and current colleague Suarez (0.33) rank higher, with Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi (0.45) top by distance in that particular metric.

IMPACT ON THE TEAM

Eight of Costa's 12 LaLiga goals since returning to LaLiga have come via his right boot - including three penalties - plus three with his head. All but one of those goals came inside the box, with exactly half from open play.

But does Costa's presence in the side, as suggested by boss Diego Simeone in the past, have a positive impact on Atletico and the way they function?

In terms of average LaLiga goals scored per game it does, rising from 1.4 in the 67 matches Costa has not started, compared to 1.6 with him in the line-up.

However, Atletico win fewer matches when Costa is involved, with their 61.2 per cent success rate dropping to 51.2 per cent - or 2.1 points per game to 1.9 on average.

A STUTTERING SEASON SO FAR

Costa is no stranger to spending time on the sidelines, not least this season; he initially contracted coronavirus before then being ruled out with deep vein thrombosis.

That has restricted him to seven LaLiga appearances. Only two of those have been from the start, as he was named in the XI for wins over Granada and Celta Vigo.

He may only have netted twice but still boasts an average of 0.87 goals per 90 minutes in the Spanish top flight this term, second only to Suarez (0.94) among Atleti players.

Joao Felix is next on the list (0.58) having scored five goals in 12 outings, though the Portuguese has also chipped in with a couple of assists, something Costa has yet to do in 2020-21.

Costa also ranks highly in terms of shot conversion rate, having scored from half of his four shots this term, not including those to have been blocked.

Another metric he tops is touches in the opposition box, averaging 8.7 per 90 minutes. That is not only the most for any Atleti player but also the third highest in the league - after Barcelona pair Trincao (10.2) and Ansu Fati (9.08) - for those to have featured at least seven times in the competition this term. 

Ultimately, though, Simeone is after a player who can not only combine all of these attacking aspects but also stay fit for a sustained period of time. For that reason, it could be that Costa's time with the club is drawing towards an end.

Diego Simeone is not prepared to risk the fitness of Atletico Madrid attacking trident Luis Suarez, Diego Costa and Joao Felix by starting all three players against Real Sociedad on Tuesday.

Costa marked his return from his latest injury lay-off with a penalty in Atletico's 3-1 win over Elche on Saturday, a game in which Luis Suarez scored his first two goals since recovering from coronavirus.

Joao Felix has carried much of the burden in his team-mates' absence but left the pitch with a knock in the final quarter of the contest, though he is back in training and in contention to face Sociedad.

Simeone has yet to start a game with all three players and does not intend to alter his formation on Tuesday, although he is not against using all three if Atleti are chasing a goal at Estadio de Anoeta.

"I don't think they're all ready to start, but we can finish with them," Simeone said at a pre-match news conference on Monday. "They are dangerous forwards and can play together.

"We have to be patient and get the most out of each player that we have. The most important thing is to ensure they are all well enough to play together."

Atletico have scored 24 goals in 12 LaLiga games this term at a rate of one goal every 45 minutes, compared to 51 goals in 38 outings in 2019-20 - one every 67 minutes.

They have also conceded just five goals all season - the fewest of any team in Europe's top five leagues - an improvement Simeone believes stretches beyond the start of this season.

"Everything is the consequence of something else," he said. "I have been repeating for a long time that the growth appeared when returning after the quarantine period.

"The team attacked very well at the end of last season and we have continued in the same direction this time around. We have improved as a whole and the players have perfectly interpreted what we have asked of them."

Atleti lead the way at the top of LaLiga ahead of their trip to Sociedad, who are three points worse off in third having played three games more.

Sociedad have won four of their last six home LaLiga games against Atletico and Simeone is anticipating a difficult encounter against the division's joint-top scorers.

"They are working well under a coach who is expressing it on the field," he said. "They have a stronger squad than last season, with the arrival of David Silva giving them something extra.

"They have very good midfield and forward players and are a team that competes at a high level."

Diego Simeone is hopeful Joao Felix has just suffered a knock after he was forced off in the second half of Atletico Madrid's win over Elche.

LaLiga leaders Atletico won 3-1 at Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, with Luis Suarez scoring twice for the hosts.

Forward Joao Felix limped off to be replaced by the returning Diego Costa with 17 minutes to go.

Costa duly wrapped up the victory by winning and converting a late penalty, settling any brief nerves caused by Lucas Boye scoring a header for Elche.

"The blow [Joao Felix took] in the first half was strong and hard," Simeone said about the 21-year-old after the match.

"It was in the play in which they stopped the counter-attack with the block on Joao - he was still playing in the second half with discomfort and pain.

"I saw him working very well for the team despite being uncomfortable, but after he took a shot at goal it was noticed that he was upset.

"Let's hope it's just a knock - we understood [it would be wise] to let him rest. The game was getting complicated and we needed legs in that area of the pitch."

Suarez had gone three games without a goal before scoring the match-winning double in his 200th LaLiga appearance.

Simeone had taken the blame for the striker's dry spell ahead of the match because he put him straight back into the team after a spell out with coronavirus.

The Atletico boss added: "We understand that all players need personal treatment, because the character of each one is different.

"It's like children in families and each one is handled, like with the five I have, in a different way.

"I didn't say anything strange about Luis, he played three games in a row last week when he was coming off a 20-day break.

"I was especially happy with the second goal, he waited until the last possible moment so he did not stray offside and made sure he could be found after a good piece of play by Yannick Carrasco."

Since making his LaLiga debut in October 2014, only Barcelona's Lionel Messi (36) has scored more braces in the competition than Suarez (23).

Diego Simeone is confident any issues with Joao Felix and Luis Suarez will be addressed after the pair reacted badly to being substituted in Saturday's Madrid derby.

Neither Atletico Madrid forward played the full 90 minutes of the 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid, a result that ended a club-record 26-game unbeaten LaLiga run going back to last season.

Joao Felix was replaced on the hour mark, just before Jan Oblak's own goal took the game away from Atleti.

The Portugal forward failed to muster a shot or create a chance, making no touches of the ball in the Madrid penalty area.

Suarez was little better, seeing his only effort blocked and completing a meagre 10 passes before following his strike partner off the pitch with 17 minutes remaining.

The pair were each replaced by midfielders – Saul Niguez and Geoffrey Kondogbia – and made their frustration clear as they returned to the bench.

But speaking ahead of Wednesday's Copa del Rey trip to Cardassar, coach Simeone was not concerned by their dissatisfaction.

"We have been here for nine years and what we have to talk about will happen internally," he said. "The best way to resolve situations is by talking and obviously we talk."

Saul had Atleti's best attempt after replacing Joao Felix, seeing a close-range header well saved by Thibaut Courtois, but the Spain international is struggling this season.

He has yet to register a goal or assist, while his duel success rate is at a career-low 41.9 per cent and he is also averaging fewer recoveries per 90 minutes (5.1) than in any prior LaLiga season.

"He is not having his best moment," Simeone said. "I have no doubt that for us he is a very important player.

"He has competed since he joined the team as a young man. He has always been important and this year it will not be different.

"He is working to improve. He is strong; we will see the Saul we all know again."

The Copa game against Cardassar may provide opportunities for players such as Saul to rediscover some form.

"There are players who are waiting to have those minutes and each one will make the best use of it," Simeone said. "When Atletico Madrid play, they must be represented in the best possible way."

Diego Simeone acknowledged a failure to take their chances cost Atletico Madrid, his side punished late on in a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich. 

Atletico went into Tuesday's Champions League clash with holders Bayern knowing that victory would be enough to secure second place in Group A. 

Joao Felix gave Atletico the lead with his eighth goal in 14 appearances this term, but the hosts could not score from any of their other 12 attempts, of which only three were on target. 

A weakened Bayern, without regulars such as Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer, grew as the game wore on, snatching a draw through Thomas Muller's 86th-minute penalty. 

It means Atletico now need to avoid defeat at Salzburg in their final group game next week to qualify for the knockout stages, and Simeone is fully aware where his side must improve. 

"We are not being forceful enough in attack, but we do create chances," Simeone told Movistar Plus. "Now we have a very tough game against Salzburg. 

"A small scoreline means you can always be caught. But until the penalty, Bayern had no chances to score." 

Atletico were again without Luis Suarez because of coronavirus, while fellow striker Diego Costa has endured another injury plagued campaign.

Joao Felix impressed against Bayern, managing more shots (three) and shots on target (two) than anyone else on the pitch, as well as playing a joint-high two key passes. 

The Portugal international's goal came from a Marcos Llorente assist, and Simeone can see signs of improvement in the attacking third, even if Atleti have failed to score more than once in any of their past four games. 

"It would not be fair to speak about the attacking players. Luis is missing through coronavirus, Diego is in his recovery phase and will be out for longer," he said. 

"The work we are doing is good, but we have to work harder on finishing situations. We are working on that in training. 

"The players are working hard and are in good shape. It is not easy having this forcefulness that will solve our issues. In these situations we will only improve. 

"I liked the move for the goal... [Yannick] Carrasco's pass to Llorente. We are already showing signs of more tranquility." 

Joao Felix agreed with head coach Simeone that chances created ultimately count for little unless they are converted. 

"We had more opportunities than them but did not take them," he said. "These things can happen in football. 

"We can have many opportunities but if we do not score them, they are worthless. They only had a few and one of them was enough to earn a draw." 

Bayern did not register an attempt on target in the first half - the first time that has happened in a Champions League group game since October 2009.  

But it was roles reversed after the restart as Atletico failed to test stand-in Bayern keeper Alexander Nubel - one of nine players brought into the visitors' starting line-up. 

"The first half was very good for us," Simeone added. "It was a beautiful goal, and we were close to a second but it just did not come. 

"Bayern are a strong side and won a penalty. Next week's game [with Salzburg] will now clearly be another final."

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.

Atletico Madrid's hopes of qualifying from their Champions League group will go down to the final matchday after Thomas Muller scored an 86th-minute penalty to earn a weakened Bayern Munich a 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Bayern had won their previous 15 games in UEFA's flagship competition but were already assured of top spot in Group A and left the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer out of their travelling squad.

With Lokomotiv Moscow losing 3-1 at home to Salzburg earlier on Tuesday, victory for Atleti would make certain of second place with a game to spare, an aim they were on course to achieve thanks to Joao Felix's eighth goal in 14 appearances this season.

The Portugal international converted from a Marcos Llorente cutback after 26 minutes, but Felipe - brought on for the injured Jose Gimenez - felled Muller in the box and his fellow substitute converted from 12 yards. 

Atleti must now avoid defeat away at Salzburg next week to join Bayern, unbeaten in 14 games in all competitions after Muller's late goal, in the last 16.

In an alternate universe unaffected by coronavirus, Atletico Madrid's hosting of Barcelona on Saturday would have been all about Luis Suarez – his first match against his former club and Lionel Messi, hoping to create further distance between the two sides in the table.

But with the Uruguayan's positive test for COVID-19 ruling him out of an early reunion, all eyes were to be on Joao Felix, the undisputed star of this Atletico team that once again appears capable of a title challenge.

Seemingly now accustomed to the pressure that accompanied his big-money move from Benfica, and excelling in a slightly altered role to that he often occupied last term, Joao Felix had been identified as the key man for Atletico heading into the fixture.

If Atletico were to walk away with a potentially vital win, Joao Felix would surely be at the fore.

But while the Portugal star was his usual tidy self in the slender 1-0 victory, it was someone a little less flashy, perhaps even usually unheralded, who gave Atletico their direction and purpose on an eerie evening at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Koke's role was arguably going to be more important than ever – Atletico were unable to call upon either Lucas Torreira or Hector Herrera, meaning that whatever central pairing the captain was going to be a part of was going to be lacking a little steel.

But the Spain international, whose recent form earned him a recall after a lengthy Roja absence, found the space he needed to orchestrate, while he did some of the dirty work as well.

In the first half, Atletico played the much more entertaining football, working it nicely between themselves in triangles around the Barca midfield – Koke was central to many of their finest moves, his link-up play with Joao Felix and Angel Correa in the final third routinely easy on the eye.

Koke appears to have rediscovered his best form again this term and his influence on Atleti was clear throughout here.

His 72 attempted passes were 14 more than anyone else in an Atletico jersey, while he completed 93 per cent of them.

Furthermore, his accuracy actually increased slightly when in the opposing half, where 45 of them were plotted.

There was substance to his distribution as well.

He laid on two key passes, bettered by only Correa (three) in the Atletico side, yet the creative burden would usually be expected to be on the likes of Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco and Saul Niguez ahead of him.

Koke's 88 touches were unrivalled by anyone else in Rojiblanco, evidence that so much went through him, while off the ball he contributed with a team-high two interceptions, one tackle, one clearance and six recoveries – Carrasco (seven), the scorer of the decisive goal, was the only Atletico player to gain possession more often.

In recent seasons, although he remained prominent in a general sense for Atletico, the wider football community's perception of Koke had suffered – he was even subjected to jeers from home fans a little over a year ago.

At that point, his career appeared to have stalled badly at Atletico. His performances were becoming increasingly ineffective and it was beginning to rub off on supporters.

Simeone remained a believer, putting such actions down to the reactionary nature of football fandom – after all, only six midfielders have had more touches and attempted passes than Koke in LaLiga this term.

This resurgence is coinciding with Atletico undergoing their biggest shift in many years, both in terms of their less pragmatic style of play and, now, key results as well.

Prior to Saturday, Atletico had failed to win their previous 20 LaLiga games against Barca, while Simeone had not ever beaten them in the league – that equates to 17 matches.

But with captain Koke plotting their route through such uncharted waters, leading with rediscovered vigour and panache, it seems unlikely that even a landmark win over Barca will be the high point of 2020-21 for a re-energised Atletico.

*PUT BACK ON DRAFT - WAIT FOR SUAREZ ABSENCE CONFIRMATION*

 

As recently as January, Joao Felix's Atletico Madrid career appeared to be on a rocky road to nowhere – the previously much-vaunted 'Golden Boy', the club's most expensive signing ever, appeared to be at a loss.

Another big game had passed him by in the shape of the Supercopa final against Real Madrid, who emerged victors on penalties after a 0-0 draw – one Los Blancos dominated.

Even greater burden had been placed on him from late 2019, with Diego Costa ruled out long-term due to a neck injury, but Joao Felix simply couldn't meet expectations.

His struggles understandably led to much debate about the cause; was he finding it difficult to settle in? Was he actually the talent everyone thought he was? Or, as most people seemingly thought, was he just not cut out for Cholismo?

Media reports at the time suggested his team-mates believed Joao Felix was having problems settling in Madrid, but once football resumed after the coronavirus-enforced lockdown, encouraging signs were beginning to show.

And now, as Atletico prepare to host Barca and Lionel Messi on Saturday, few would consider anyone other than Joao Felix to be LaLiga's outstanding player in 2020-21.

Space? You can get lost in space

Joao Felix's arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Diego Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals was the lowest they'd managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even duller to watch.

This didn't do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's rigid and disciplined system.

Yet, as average touch location maps show, Joao Felix generally operated largely in a less disciplined role last season than he has in 2020-21 – in 2019-20, he occupied spaces through the middle and on the left flank more than most, yet his time in the four zones within that area between the halfway line and penalty area were split fairly evenly.

 

This season, however, 22 per cent of his ball touches have been in a withdrawn area on the left flank, and 19 per cent in the next zone up the same wing. His role is demonstrably more structured yet he is proving far more effective as he wanders less, and this is evident almost across the board.

His tally of five LaLiga goals is second only to Mikel Oyarzabal and, at rate of 0.9 goals per 90 minutes, his frequency in that regard has trebled. His rate of 0.4 assists per 90 minutes is four times higher than the 0.1 for last term.

Joao Felix is now averaging 2.2 key passes every game (up from 0.8), while his records for passes, touches, open-play sequence involvement and goal-ending sequence involvement have all increased massively this season.

 

Suarez makes great players even better

Whether this clear change in role has been engineered by Simeone or Joao Felix himself is difficult to know without one of them claiming as much. Certainly, the Atletico coach has not alluded to such an alteration.

No, Simeone has instead highlighted the impact of signing of Luis Suarez from Sunday's opponents, saying earlier this month: "I believe that all this is generated from the presence of Suarez. With the likes of [Diego] Costa and [Alvaro] Morata before him, they had a lot of other characteristics, but we have been looking for other qualities.

"Luis has needed more people close to him, close to where he can hurt the opposition, and that is the team's goal."

Let's not forget, Suarez has spent years alongside the very best in the business in Lionel Messi, and the pair developed an almost telepathic understanding – as good as the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is, that doesn't happen just because of him.

Suarez is an assassin in attack, boasting off the ball intelligence like few other strikers have in the past 30 years – even if he's not as quick as he once was, the Uruguayan knows what runs to make, and when to make them.

For example, Joao Felix has created four chances for Suarez this season – that's already tied with the highest amount of key passes he played for a single team-mate in 2019-20 (Angel Correa), and one more than he laid on for Morata.

But herein lies a new test for Joao Felix.

Sunday is Atletico's first matchup with either of the 'big two' in LaLiga this term, but they will not be able to look to the finishing abilities of Suarez due to his coronavirus diagnosis.

 

Therefore, even greater onus will be on Joao Felix to provide the spark in attack for Atletico, potentially both as a creator and a finisher - thankfully for him, his positive xG differential of 2.4 suggests he has that capability.

Whether he inspires Atletico to a win or not, the fact such a possibility is even being considered less than a year on from him appearing utterly at odds with the club is a major triumph for Joao Felix.

Joao Felix apparently has no plans to leave Atletico Madrid for Paris Saint-Germain.

Joao Felix, 21, is enjoying a fine campaign with the LaLiga giants, having struggled during his first season in 2019-20 after his arrival from Benfica.

The playmaker has attracted interest from PSG.

 

TOP STORY – FELIX WANTS ATLETICO STAY AMID PSG INTEREST

Joao Felix is not thinking about leaving Atletico Madrid amid Paris Saint-Germain's interest, according to Record.

Signed by Atletico for a reported €126million last year, Joao Felix has started to star for Diego Simeone's side.

Only Mikel Oyarzabal (six goals and two assists) has been directly involved in more LaLiga goals than Joao Felix (five goals and two assists) this season.

Joao Felix has also created five big chances – the second most behind Sergio Canales – for Atletico, who are unbeaten in LaLiga ahead of hosting Barcelona on Saturday.

 

ROUND-UP

- Out of contract at Bayern Munich at the end of the season, David Alaba is expected to leave the Bundesliga champions. Marca reports the defender is an option for Real Madrid and a move is not dependant on Sergio Ramos' future with the LaLiga giants.

- Another Madrid defender, Raphael Varane, is also linked with a move. The Manchester Evening News says Manchester United may again look at the defender, who is contracted at Madrid until 2022.

- Isco's time at Madrid could finally be coming to an end. El Confidencial reports Isco, who is in his eighth season at Madrid, is on the market. Everton have been linked with the attacker.

- A decision about RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano's future could be close. Bild says a call could be made in January amid links to United and Liverpool, with his €45m release clause reportedly too much for Bayern.

- Mariano Diaz may be set for a Madrid exit. The Daily Mail reports West Ham have been offered the chance to sign the forward, potentially on loan initially.

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