Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann's return to his best form is well timed ahead of Sunday's top-of-the-table clash at Barcelona -- although support from new strike partner Diego Costa and others has also been vital as the gap to the leaders was cut to just five points.
After looking out of sorts through much of the autumn, recent weeks have brought a dramatic change in Griezmann's performances, culminating in Sunday's hat trick in the 5-2 La Liga win at Sevilla, then Wednesday's four-goal haul as Leganes lost 4-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.
The stats clearly show the France international's progress through the season. He had seven goals in 21 games for Atletico across all competitions before the winter break. It is now 13 in 13 outings since 2018 began, including as many club goals in four days this week as he managed in the entire first five months of campaign.
Speaking at the postgame news conference on Wednesday, Colchoneros coach Diego Simeone pointed out that the 2016 Ballon d'Or third-place finisher had been at this level in previous years, and also that he was benefitting from a "fantastic" supply line from his teammates.
"Antoine had some spells in other seasons at this level," Simeone said. "He is an extraordinary player, has showed that other times, too. The team is helping him perform. The assist from Koke was fantastic, and the passes from Filipe Luis and Diego Costa. Then with his talent, he can decide the game."
The most obvious change at Atletico since January began has been the availability of Costa, whose contagious positivity and aggression has completely changed the mood around the club.
The former Chelsea man's physical presence at centre-forward has understandably distracted opposition defenders quite a lot. Griezmann has now taken up a roaming No. 10 role, with freedom to go where he feels best. This has also brought three assists in his last four outings.
Atletico have now won all eight of their most recent games in all competitions, scoring 21 times across that run. Rojiblanco centre-half Jose Maria Gimenez told reporters on Wednesday that Griezmann hitting the net so regularly was the biggest factor in how the team's results had improved.
"[Griezmann] is magnificent, a player who does everything well," Gimenez said. "I believe that he more than anybody has changed the fortunes of the team from the beginning of the season. Then the ball was not going in, but now it is."
On Sunday in Sevilla, Simeone said the same thing in a different way, recalling how the team had "suffered" when Griezmann's performances were not "at their normal level" earlier in the season.
And it is true that Atletico struggled to find the net all through the autumn, when Costa was kicking his heels on the sidelines due to a FIFA transfer ban. A run of seven draws in nine games, with just six goals scored, did huge damage to their season. Two draws with Qarabag led directly to their shock group exit from the Champions League, and it allowed Barca to open up a big gap at the top of La Liga.
The slow start to the season linked to Griezmann's awkward summer of 2017, when he almost left for Manchester United before agreeing to a bumper new contract to stay. Continued flirting with other clubs clearly affected his relationship with the Rojiblanco faithful, and there was another flashpoint in early February when he shushed supporters who whistled him playing down the clock at 1-0 up at home to Valencia.
Few at the Wanda have been surprised that a €100 million move to the Camp Nou for 2018-19 has been widely talked up again in the Catalan press in recent days.
Las portadas de @mundodeportivo y @sport NO TIENEN NADA QUE VER con que Griezmann haya hecho un hat-trick y el proximo fin de semana se enfrente al Barça.
No seais mal pensados pic.twitter.com/HtOHK0j0Np
- Mr. Portadas ⚽️ (@MrPortadas) February 27, 2018
Ex-Atletico striker Paulo Futre told Radio Marca this week that he did not believe Griezmann would be distracted by such talk on Sunday.
"I believe [the speculation] will not influence at all Sunday's game; he is a great professional," Futre said. "He will only be thinking of scoring goals to win the game. I hope Griezmann spends the rest of his career as a colchonero ... but he is a professional who can decide his own future."
After Wednesday's "poker," Griezmann apologised for previous lapses while stopping short of going into detail about his future plans. "I can make mistakes, in things that I say, or telling the fans to be quiet," he said. "Now we are all enjoying ourselves, and hopefully I will have this affection [from the fans] until the end."
The 26-year-old did not specify when "the end" would be, but all the thinking at Atletico is now short-term. If Griezmann scores the winner on Sunday to cut the gap at the top of the table to just two points, he will be feted again.
Yet Simeone is also correct to say that Costa getting toward his rampaging best, and other key Atletico providers, such as Koke and Filipe Luis, are just as important to the team's return to form. Barca's defenders concentrating on just one player -- no matter how good his recent stats -- would be a big mistake.