BARCELONA, Spain (AP)With his reputation as a taskmaster, Diego Simeone is not an easy coach to play for.
Many a striker – Alvaro Morata, Jackson Martinez, Kevin Gameiro, to name three – have seen their careers stunted while at Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid.
But the Argentine coach’s no-frills style and demands for maximum effort from his players also result in some rare transformations.
Take the case of Marcos Llorente, who arrived as a defensive specialist who had failed to fit in at Real Madrid and ended up blossoming into one of the top-scoring midfielders in Spain under Simeone.
Llorente has scored nine times for Atletico this season, including two goals in the last two games to help keep the Spanish leader with only one loss blemishing its league campaign.
His equalizer salvaged a point from a 1-1 draw at Levante on Wednesday. On Saturday, his team will host the same Levante side before it prepares to play Chelsea in the Champions League round-of-16.
Simeone spoke about how ”glorious” it felt for him to discover that a player who had been pigeonholed as a certain type can actually do so much more.
”It awakens a sense of joy and enthusiasm to keep progressing in this profession,” Simeone said after Llorente scored in a 2-1 win over Granada last Saturday.
”When we see a player who has the conditions to do something different, we know we have to give it a try. It happened with (Antoine) Griezmann, Koke and Saul Niguez, who have played in several positions.
”Now I watch videos of Marcos Llorente from training when he was not even being included on our squads. He was scoring goals in all of them, until one day we decided to give him a chance and played him as a forward. Now we are modulating his position to play him as an interior midfielder where he feels the most comfortable.”
Llorente erupted as a scorer on one of soccer’s top stages. With Liverpool beating Atletico in the Champions League last March, he came off the bench and struck twice from long range to stun the-then title holders at Anfield.
Since then he has been a fixture in Simeone’s starting 11, playing mostly as an attacking midfielder, but also filling in at several positions when teammates were out with injury, suspension or coronavirus infections.
Llorente’s speed and superb fitness give Simeone just what he demands: a relentless pursuit of the ball while defending and the ability to stretch the attack and open spaces for the less mobile Luis Suarez to score.
Second only to Suarez’s 16 goals as Atletico’s top scorer, Llorente is tied with Levante’s Jorge de Frutos as the leading assist-maker with seven.
The 26-year-old Llorente came up through Real Madrid’s training academy. After impressing as a holding midfielder in a season at Alaves, he returned to Madrid in 2017. But after Zinedine Zidane used him sparingly during two seasons as backup to regular starter Casemiro, the club apparently saw no danger in sending him to their crosstown rival for 20 million euros ($24 million) in 2019.
Llorente has, however, become a different player under Simeone. After going scoreless for Alaves and only netting twice in two seasons for Madrid, he has 14 goals in a season and a half for Atletico.
Atletico leads Madrid by six points and Barcelona by nine. Madrid has played one more game than the other two title challengers.
Madrid visits the relegation-threatened Valladolid on Saturday, before it travels to Atalanta in the Champions League next week.
Barcelona will try to bounce back from its 4-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain when it hosts a Cadiz side on Sunday that upset it in December. Barcelona has gone 12 league games without defeat since that 2-1 loss.
Fourth-place Sevilla, one point behind Barcelona, will visit Osasuna on Monday. Sevilla’s nine-game win streak was ended by a 3-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.
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