A year since Marcos Llorente launched his career at Anfield, he might be launching Atletico Madrid towards the title.
Two goals against Liverpool in the Champions League was as many as Llorente had managed in the previous four seasons of his career, with an assist for Alvaro Morata confirming Atletico Madrid’s pulsating 3-2 win at Anfield last year.
Twelve months on, Llorente has nine goals and eight assists in La Liga, a total of 17 contributions only bettered by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema.
His latest goal was an equaliser against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday, a late run into the box and header into the corner, and really he assisted the winner too, a through-ball giving Suarez the chance to earn a penalty.
Llorente knew his match-winning performance against Liverpool could be a turning-point – he even named his dog ‘Anfield’ to celebrate – but he might not have predicted such a dramatic transformation afterwards.
If La Liga ended tomorrow, he would be a contender for player of the year, arguably even ahead of Suarez, whose 18 goals since swapping Barcelona for Madrid have been pivotal in Atletico opening up a six-point lead at the top of the table.
But if Suarez has provided the finishing touch, Llorente has been Atleti’s driving force, his running, energy, selflessness, versatility and precision symptomatic of an Atletico side that has been a testament to the collective.
“For a year now Marcos has been the epitome of effort,” said Diego Simeone this week. “He arrived at the club, he wasn’t in the team, not even on the bench, but he kept training and making the effort to get to where he wanted to get to and he’s managed it.”
Llorente had already been fighting for years, at Real Madrid where he joined the academy aged 13 and dreamt of playing for the first team, but where opportunities and trust were lacking.
He spent a year on loan at Alaves, and thrived, but upon returning found a turbulent season for Madrid did little for his chances and when Atletico offered a way out, he took it, Real Madrid taking 40 million euros in exchange.
It seemed a lot for a defensive midfielder struggling for games but two years later Atletico boast one of the most dangerous attackers in Europe and a 26-year-old who looks sure to start for Spain at this summer’s European Championship.
“As coaches, titles are wonderful, because they fill you with excitement and glory but when you work with a footballer and you see them grow, it inspires more joy and more enthusiasm to keep working in this job,” said Simeone.
Simeone could have both this season, with the title now firmly in Atletico’s grasp. Their victory over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday gives them breathing space ahead of Saturday’s trip across the city to Getafe.
Real Madrid, who are eight points behind, play at home to Elche earlier in the day, before Barcelona host bottom club Huesca on Monday night.