Let me tell you a couple of things about Thomas Lemar. Costing more than €70 million, he didn’t so much break Atletico’s record transfer market outlay, he smashed it. Secondly, his move to Los Rojiblancos could have been utterly disastrous.
With due respect to Monaco, living and training in Monte Carlo bears no relationship to working for Diego Simeone and his fierce assistant Mono Burgos. Monaco and Atleti share the same sport, but in the same way that Teslas and monster trucks are both types of motor vehicles.
Lemar oozes talent, balance, technique. But even though he admitted when he was presented that “I’ve shown a good athletic ability in my career, but if I have to run more, I will,” he was coming to a world with which he was utterly unfamiliar.
Every single link in the Atleti chain needs to be as sound as the others. Brutal intensity, sweat, attention to detail, utter and complete unity of work ethic, tracking, tackling, competitiveness. I’m not sure that words like “filigree”, “finesse” and “panache” aren’t banned at Atleti’s Majadahonda training ground.
The question as to how a guy like Lemar, just 22, World Cup champion with France, used to a gentler pace, a more refined lifestyle, would adapt was something that promised to be compelling — but with no guarantee of a happy ending.
Right now, the results simply could not be more admirable or exciting.
From his first competitive day, working like a Trojan, looking like he might actually be a member of Simeone’s family, harassing Real Madrid as if that were his life’s primary objective, the UEFA Super Cup win was powerful evidence that this young Frenchman knew what he’d signed up for. Since then, largely, Lemar has continued to look right at home, a huge asset.
Then came Saturday. Please, I beseech you, go back and watch what happens when Lemar’s World Cup-winning teammate Lucas Hernandez picks up possession just outside his own penalty area, 1-0 up and with half an hour left away to Getafe.
The French defender is first to a loose ball and turns. Instantly, there’s the Getafe press.
Damian Suarez, Francisco Portillo, Mauro Arambarri and Amath are hunting him as a pack. Many would quake, but Hernandez’s neat pass to break the line of pressure sets up a move that takes the ball from an anarchic, threatening situation to the back of Getafe’s net in 21 seconds via nine passes and the involvement of seven players.
Lemar scores it, but he’s one of those involved twice.
Showing for the ball on the halfway line, he bursts forward, feeds his friend Antoine Griezmann, then careens off on a run that no Getafe player tracks. Koke sets him up with a lovely pass behind the defence and Lemar tucks the ball home, effectively sealing three points, with wonderful elan.
This is a guy who, I’d say, knows how to get through the dry spells in his first season at Atleti: hard work. A technically wonderful footballer who’s not afraid of rolling his sleeves up and sweating things out.
At this rate, his price will seem cheap. With the Champions League culminating at Atleti’s own Metropolitano stadium, Lemar is the kind of guy who, via effort and effervescence, can take you there.
Watch him. You won’t regret it.
Parejo’s wretched week
Dani Parejo has had a stinker of a week. The kind of week oozing a level of misfortune you might suffer if you’ve walked under a ladder on Friday the 13th and then used a black cat to smash a dozen mirrors.
But I demand that you don’t have one millimetre of sympathy for Valencia’s captain.
Here’s his list of infamy over eight brutal days, a blacklist that means he’s suspended, captain of a failing team and right in the crosshair of blame as far as I or any other sane judge can see.
Saturday, Sep. 15: Already playing sloppily, without his usual panache, vision and capacity to make a feverish match stand still while he applies football medicine, Valencia’s captain is booked for hauling back Andres Guardado as the Mexico international surged past him.
With Los Che not having won a match and Juventus coming into view like a heavily armed battleship in midweek, it was a moment to make the 29-year-old midfielder think calmly, to withdraw his claws, cool his temper. Instead, within four minutes, he took a couple of irritable swipes at Aissa Mandi and was supremely fortunate that the referee wasn’t paying full attention (or didn’t want to send the home captain off).
No second booking, no red card — although he’d only have himself to blame if that had been the result of his impetuous childishness.
Wednesday, Sep. 19: For the first time in European history, Valencia and Juventus meet competitively. Cristiano Ronaldo gets himself sent off just half an hour into the match.
Juventus have already been peppering the home goal and, suddenly, Valencia have a glaring opportunity to turn their horribly limp and disappointing season around, to set in motion a seismic upset — it’s 11 vs. 10.
What Juve can’t be allowed is any pity. Not a scent of weakness, either. For a captain, one with a computer in his head and magic in his boots, history isn’t so much beckoning but blowing kisses and turning back the quilt with an invitation to come to bed.
Instead, 15 minutes after Ronaldo’s red card, Parejo, slow to react and with the turning circle of a skyscraper, allows the ball to drift past him into the space where Joao Cancelo is arriving and, in a split second of momentous stupidity, raises his boot so high in the air that it makes contact with the side of the his ex-teammate’s face.
He’s moving at the speed of disinterest, showing the timing of a stopped watch and he’s beaten all ends up by an opponent with whom he trained and played hundreds of times before the Portuguese full-back left for Juve.
Forewarned doesn’t appear to mean forearmed. Penalty. Tucked away. Juventus reprieved and en route to victory.
And, again, Parejo’s trading on good fortune that studs to the face weren’t judged by referee Felix Brych as a red card. Just for good measure, our protagonist misses a last-minute penalty that would have given Los Che only their fourth goal in 450 competitive minutes.
Sunday, Sep. 23: Noticeably ticked off that he’s failed in a basic control, just under an hour into the derbi with Villarreal, Parejo lunges into an over-the-top tackle, embeds his studs in the ankle of Ramiro Funes Mori and is shown a straight red. Some guys just won’t learn.
Quite a week. Unacceptable. This is a superb footballer. Someone who felt victimised, abused and abused by Valencia’s demanding fans, and in need of getting out of the city, until Marcelino arrived in summer 2017, persuaded him to stay, revitalised his career and kept him as captain.
The level of indifference, dullness of reaction, impetuous ill-temper and indiscipline he’s shown this week doesn’t erase his admirable ability. But it’s a truly horrible way to reward either Marcelino or the Mestalla fans for their renewed faith in him.