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Nikola Kalinić’s time has come

The Croatian hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make his mark in Spain — but now he will.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Sant Andreu - Copa del Rey - Fourth Round Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Wednesday night at the Wanda Metropolitano saw Atlético Madrid seal progression to the Copa del Rey’s last 16 courtesy of a 4-0 win over Catalan side Sant Andreu. All four goals came after half time, and the second goal in the 45-minute rampage came through one Nikola Kalinić — the much-maligned Croatian signed to replace Kévin Gameiro as Atlético’s backup number nine.

While Santiago Arias’ cross was ridiculous and put Kalinić in a great position, the ex-Milan striker still had to outmuscle his marker and hit the header with enough precision to score. And he did just that, as his effort thumped off the ground and into the top of the net.

It had to be a moment of major relief for the 30-year-old, one which could give a real boost to his confidence before the winter break. That hypothetical boost will be needed, as Kalinić is now in line to replace Diego Costa as Diego Simeone’s starting center forward.

Costa underwent successful surgery on his troubled left foot earlier this week and he is not expected back until at least early February. Simeone has remarked that Costa gives Atlético an edge no one else can give them and he transmits a winning mentality. While Atleti will miss that quality — possibly sorely — there are options in the big Brazilian’s absence.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Sure, Simeone can still count on Antoine Griezmann. Ángel Correa has been arguably the team’s most consistent attacker this season. Borja Garcés keeps finding his way into Cholo’s matchday squads and could be called upon with much more regularity. But if ever there was a time for Kalinić to win over skeptical supporters, it’s now.

The former Croatia international has made 11 Atlético appearances so far, and while Wednesday marked only his first goal in red and white it was the culmination of some promising performances. Kalinić has averaged 1.7 shots per 90 minutes in LaLiga, which places him just behind Griezmann among Atleti’s qualified forwards. His five attempted aerial duels per 90 minutes places him behind only Costa. That said, the ex-Fiorentina forward has taken too many poor touches — 3.3 per 90 — and gets dispossessed too often (1.7 per 90) for a player whose job it is to hang out around the box and finish chances Griezmann and others craft for him.

Still, per 90 stats don’t mean everything. Kalinić has shown good movement in addition to burgeoning chemistry with Griezmann and others despite his lack of minutes. Only more minutes will help fans and writers see just what kind of player Simeone requested and acquired in August. Said minutes will be made available now with Costa’s injury, and Kalinić has to take advantage of the newfound competition.