Let’s rewind back to April 27, 2016. It’s Atletico Madrid vs Bayern Munich. It’s the Champions League semi-final first leg. It’s the first of two giant steps that los Rojiblancos must take to return to a final they cruelly lost two years prior. The Vicente Calderon hosts the occasion and what better location to hold such a monumental event. The atmosphere is raucous as is usual, but also expected from the loyal fan base. Bayern know their walking into a unique setting. Before them, the defending European Champions, Barcelona, stood where they stand, in the visitors dressing room. Similar to their Spanish counterparts, Munich are about to witness the fear of having all four corners in a 55,000 capacity building howl and whistle every move you make.
For Atletico, the night represents something different. They conquered the might of Barcelona back in 2014 as well, just before they fell to rivals Real in the final. A heart breaking occasion, and one that would unfortunately be repeated a month after this match-up with Munich. Unaware, of course, of what lies ahead of them in Milan, Atleti’s squad are prepared to do battle with the favoured Germans. The moment has been set up for one of the figures in the home dressing room to become a hero. Step forth, Saúl Niquez.
It’s a goal that can be analysed a hundred times over and still mystify pundits. Picking the ball up from well outside the penalty area, and facing a wall of Munich players, Saúl somehow dribbles and dazzles his way past challenge after challenge before a delightful curl on his shot travels past Manuel Neuer. 1-0 Atletico, and the celebrations ensue. A mesmerising piece of skill like that can define a player’s career. Just ask Ryan Giggs about his mazy run versus Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final back in 1999.
Giggs is as decorated as they come in terms of legacies in this sport, yet THAT goal remains THE highlight that the media refer to when summing up his fantastic career. Saúl’s moment was created at a time when his team needed some special, or crazy, type of creativity. Only magicians produce magic, and though he wasn’t waving any wand at the time, Saúl proved his legitimacy as a special character with this finish.
Not many casuals will look back on that fixture and praise Saúl’s work as much as they’ll marvel at his goal, which proved to be the only one in the contest. As we know, Atleti would head through to the final thanks to the away goal rule after a 2-1 “loss” at the Allianz Arena six days later. In that all-important match, Saúl again worked tirelessly, a common trait for an Atletico midfielder, completing 3 tackles and holding a 75% pass rate, according to whoscored.com.
It was a game which required patience, composure and effort. Saúl ticked all boxes. On the opposite end of the field, in Bayern’s midfield, was Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal, Thiago and Thomas Muller. Most 21-year-olds would have looked out of sorts and out of place. Coming up against these experience and talented players, it would have even been understandable if the pressure weighed too heavily on Saúl. But in such a vital encounter, he not only showed he belonged but that he was also capable of getting the better of his veteran counterparts.
The final versus Real was a tricky affair for the midfield of Atleti. Saúl, being the versatile midfielder he is, was placed on the right- hand side as he has become accustomed to. His height was an advantage, winning 6 aerial battles against a disadvantaged Real side, according to whoscored.com. For the majority of the tense affair, Saúl was asked to tuck in and hassle the opposition’s creative players instead of being allowed to get on the ball himself and try to make things happen. It’s a frustrating order but one that the Spaniard is aware that manager Diego Simeone demands from his players, especially his midfielders.
His moment to shine would eventually come. Saúl successfully converted his penalty kick before Juanfran’s effort hit the post and the rest is history. A loss for his team, and though it won’t have mattered much in the aftermath of such a crushing defeat, a personal victory for Saúl. The campaign saw him come up against the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Luka Modric, Isco, Toni Kross, Alonso and Vidal amongst others, with him rarely performing like the young, inexperienced figure that he could have portrayed himself as.
Despite being named in Vicente del Bosque’s preliminary squad for the European Championships this summer in France, Saúl harshly missed out towards the end. What looked like an unfortunate moment, may have been a blessing in disguise. The Spanish side bowed out in the second round to Italy, as they produced a largely uninspired performance in the tournament. Coupled with the embarrassment in Brazil two years ago, the most dominant national team since 2008 are now looked upon as has-beens.
Del Bosque has since departed and a new era will begin for the 2010 World Champions, with Saúl expected to play a big part in the country’s future. Missing out on a humiliating and disappointing experience can only be a positive for the Atleti midfielder, and though the experience of being surrounded by such talented players would have made the trip worthwhile, the young midfielder will now be looked as someone who could have a made a difference had he been chosen.
The season that has just passed is enough evidence of the potential Saúl holds. Not just his ability to become one of the more talented and important midfields in Europe, but also the possibility of Saúl becoming the next legend of Atletico Madrid. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Luis Aragones, Simeone, Fernando Torres won’t happen because of a goal in a European semi-final. The iconic figures of Atleti have been too loyal, committed and dedicated to the red and white jersey that such an honour requests more than that.
There is a long way to go for Saúl before he can join the names listed above, however his performances until this point have given fans much hope that he can be the next hero for their beloved club. His resistance to move to Premier League clubs that were strongly linked with him, such as Tottenham or Manchester United, is admirable. Being a part of the organization since he was a young teen, the hope is this sort of loyalty will remain a consistent trait of his. The recent news that he has been granted the #8 jersey is just another sign of how well-received Saúl is by the higher-ups at the club. They themselves must realise they could be dealing with the next iconic figure of Atletico.