By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) – Atletico Madrid have prepared the ground for another assault on the La Liga title race this season by tying down their most talented players and building a robust squad while rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona have conducted relatively little business.
Atletico’s biggest statement was convincing forward Antoine Griezmann to snub a widely expected move to last year’s runaway champions Barcelona, while they also shook off interest in coveted goalkeeper Jan Oblak and defender Diego Godin.
They also smashed their own transfer record to sign Thomas Lemar for 65 million euros (58 million pounds) while replenishing their squad by signing midfielders Gelson Martins and Rodrigo, Colombia defender Santiago Arias and Croatia forward Nikola Kalinic.
The arrival of electric winger Lemar from AS Monaco hints at a more attacking approach for coach Diego Simeone, who has built his side’s sustained success on a rock solid backline boasting the best defensive record in five of the last six seasons.
The prospect of Diego Costa and Griezmann continuing the highly profitable understanding they formed when Costa returned to the team in January also adds to the sense of excitement around Atletico, who finished second last season above Real and won the Europa League.
“We have a great squad, the club has done a great job to hold on to our most important players and in making some important signings,” said defender Juanfran.
“Every year people demand even more from us, that’s the reality and we will try and aspire to win everything with hard work and humility.
“I understand the excitement because of the great team we have built but I ask for calm. We are a very hard working team and little by little we’ll see how the season develops.”
Atletico may have lost important dressing room figures in captain Gabi Fernandez and Fernando Torres, although their departures pale in comparison to the upheaval at city rivals Real, who lost all-time top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Zinedine Zidane.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have parted with one of their most iconic players in Andres Iniesta and have not made any eye-catching additions, giving Atletico one of their best chances to secure a second title since 2014.
Simeone’s side will also have an added incentive in this season’s Champions League as the competition’s final will be held at their Wanda Metropolitano stadium, but face a gruelling start to the new campaign.
They meet Champions League holders Real in the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday before beginning their league campaign away to Valencia, who finished fourth last season.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)