Simeone to face tough challenge without Griezmann, Godin

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FILE - In this April 6, 2019, file photo, Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann, center, vies for the ball with Barcelona midfielder Arthur, left, and Barcelona defender Clement Lenglet, right, during a Spanish La Liga soccer match in Barcelona, Spain. Atletico Madrid will be the opponent for the Major League Soccer All-Star game this summer in Orlando. The 10-time La Liga champions are the second team from the league to play the domestic All-Stars, joining Real Madrid, the opponents in the 2017 game in Chicago. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

MADRID (AP) — More than ever, Diego Simeone will be put to the test as Atletico Madrid coach.

Simeone will begin next season facing the difficult challenge of keeping Atletico competitive after the departure of its biggest star, Antoine Griezmann, and other players who have been key to the team's success in recent years.

He will also be without captain Diego Godin and defender Lucas Hernandez, and most likely will have to deal with the absence of players such as Juanfran Torres and Filipe Luis, who could be announcing their departures in the coming weeks.

Simeone will suddenly find himself having to put together a team without his core players, making his upcoming offseason work crucial to keep Atletico in contention for the top titles in European football.

The hardest player to replace will be, by far, Griezmann, the forward who last year won the World Cup with France and finished third in the Ballon d'Or vote for world's best player.

Simeone has constantly talked about Griezmann's importance for Atletico, saying he is the player who sets the tone for the team in attack. He is among the few indisputable starters, having scored more than 130 goals in five seasons at the club.

Simeone appeared to be caught by surprise by Griezmann's decision, saying a few days ago he didn't fear losing the player in the upcoming transfer window.

"Simeone is disappointed, like everybody else," Atletico president Enrique Cerezo told Radio Marca. "But (Griezmann) had made up his mind and there was no way to convince him otherwise."

Griezmann had a contract with Atletico until 2023 with a reported buyout clause of 200 million euros ($224 million), but the clause will be automatically reduced to about 120 million euros ($134 million) this offseason. Griezmann did not say where he will be next season, but Atletico rival Barcelona was reportedly among the front-runners to sign the Frenchman.

Atletico's attacking chores will fall on the recently signed Alvaro Morata and the veteran Diego Costa, who endured a season marred by injuries and lackluster performances. Victor "Vitolo" Machin and Nikola Kalinic are the other options for Simeone up front, with Angel Correa and Saul Niguez remaining as his attacking midfielders.

The defense is where Atletico has thrived over the years, but this time the changes will be significant, especially in the absence of Godin, who came to the team before Simeone arrived at the end of 2011. The 33-year-old Uruguayan defender, who is expected to join Inter Milan, has played 388 matches in nine seasons for Atletico, helping the club win the Spanish league, two Europa Leagues, three UEFA Super Cups, a Spanish Super Cup, and a Copa del Rey.

Hernandez is on his way to Bayern Munich next season, while both fullbacks, Torres and Filipe Luis, are not expected to renew their contracts. Simeone faces revamping nearly the entire defense. Jose Gimenez will likely remain as a central defender along with youngster Francisco Montero, while Santiago Arias will take over the right back position.

The midfield may not escape unscathed either, as there are rumors about offers from top clubs for young midfielder Rodrigo "Rodri" Hernandez, who arrived this season and immediately became a regular starter. Staying in the team will be Thomas Lemar, Partey Thomas and Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion, who should gain a greater role within the squad as a veteran, along with goalkeeper Jan Oblak.

The entire team, including Griezmann, on Thursday practiced for Atletico's final game of the season at Levante on Sunday in the Spanish league. Atletico has pride to play for as it has already secured a second straight runner-up finish in the league.

The final whistle will mean time to rest for most, but for Simeone, the work will be just starting.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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