Griezmann is building bond to do what Neymar does better

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Antoine Griezmann will not have envisaged his first year at Barcelona to have gone this way. Last weekend he celebrated 12 months at the club but got injured in the win over Valladolid, ruling him out for Sunday’s last game of the campaign against Alaves.

The title is already lost and he has already seen the coach who originally wanted him signed, Ernesto Valverde, sacked. Next week his second Barcelona manager, Quique Setien, may well also bite the dust – Barcelona are still seriously considering putting B-team coach Francisco Javier García Pimienta in temporary charge.

It’s been a tough first year, chaotic, sometimes lonely, and so far trophyless. But on Friday there was some good news as he came through a specially designed training session. There is optimism that he will be fit to face Napoli in the Champions League on August 8.

There is also the prospect of wearing his favourite No 7 shirt next season. And his brilliant goal against Villarreal at the start of the month was a taste of the way things could still turn out for him at Barcelona if he finally hits it off with Lionel Messi.

That goal wasn’t just important because it was him linking up with Messi. It also drew him level with Neymar for goals in his first season at Barcelona.

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In the 2013-14 campaign Neymar scored 15 times in what was his first year at the club. Griezmann can now say that he has done the same. He also has 14 more goals than Eden Hazard in his maiden season for Real Madrid.

The stats say things have been nowhere near as bad as some critics have wanted to make out.

But it’s also true that Griezmann has not hit the heights he reached at Atletico Madrid.

He got 21 goals in his last season under Diego Simeone, 29, 26 and 32 in the three previous campaigns. He knows he can do better at Barca.

Taking back the seven shirt might seem like a frivolity but the psychological effect shouldn’t be underestimated. Coutinho had it last year and it was left unused when he went out on loan to Bayern Munich.

Griezmann needs to feel like the special player Barcelona believed he was when they paid £108m for him last year. Taking back the number he wore to become a world champion with France, and used to wear for Atletico Madrid will help him do that.

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The Villarreal goal was a reminder of his class. It seemed like a turning point for him. There had been a long night of soul searching after he was taken off in the 65th minute in Barcelona’s home game with Athletic Bilbao three matches earlier.

He was on the bench against Celta Vigo in the next game and worse was to come when he came on because he got the blame for the equaliser.

Never mind that the wall was badly set-up, he was on the end of it and he jumped as the ball curled low around him and past Marc Andre ter Stegen.

Coach Setien did not protect him post-game saying that the team lost because ‘someone in the wall jumped’.

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In the next game he was on the bench again, only this time it was against his former club Atletico Madrid and being brought on in injury time seemed almost like a punishment.

But from that darkest hour came that dawn of linking up with Messi against Villarreal.

Being absent from the awful showing against Osasuna in midweek when the league was finally surrendered will have done him no harm.

It will have reminded everyone that if they are to win the Champions League next month they need to get the best out of their French forward.

Luis Suarez has been Griezmann’s greatest ally so far. The Uruguayan has done his best to look after Griezmann, who had a close bond with Suarez’s international team-mate Diego Godin at Atletico.

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Messi is more reserved. He has a close friendship with Suarez and he gets on well with Arturo Vidal so there is little effort to forge deep bonds with anyone else.

When Griezmann came back to full squad training after quarantine and discovered that he was in a different training group to Messi and Suarez it seemed his card was marked. Messi has taken Ansu Fati under his wing and appeared to want the 17-year-old to be third piece of the attacking jigsaw.

But the way Messi and Griezmann combined against Villarreal remains a promise of things to come.

It might not have been the start of a beautiful friendship but it might have been the moment Messi realises he needs Griezmann; maybe not as much as Griezmann needs him. But he needs him all the same.

‘Playing this way we will not win beat Napoli’ Messi said in midweek after the Osasuna defeat.

If the king of the club, and the ‘principito’ can hit it off, they have a far better chance of reaching the quarter-finals.

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