Joao Felix is an Atletico Madrid legend – technically.
The Portuguese forward became the club’s record signing in 2019 and after reaching 100 games for the club in February, earned his plaque on the ‘legends’ walk’ at the Wanda Metropolitano.
However, purely on performances, nobody would bestow him ‘legend’ status yet. Atletico Madrid’s €126 million (£106m/$138m) man has flattered to deceive, until now.
His goal against Manchester United was a recent high among multiple in 2022, with Felix enjoying his best form since arriving from Benfica.
He has the price tag of a superstar, the fourth most expensive player of all time, but has only shown his quality in flashes and moments.
Consistency has eluded him and even during Atletico’s title triumph last season, his contributions were overshadowed by those of his team-mates.
Luis Suarez was the key figure with 21 league goals, followed by Marcos Llorente with 12 and Angel Correa with nine, ahead of Felix’s seven. The Portuguese striker’s five assists were beaten by Kieran Trippier, Correa, Yannick Carrasco and Llorente.
His move to Atletico never looked a perfect fit, with coach Diego Simeone’s renowned defensive outlook not necessarily the best home for a gifted creative.
The hope was that Felix could follow the Antoine Griezmann roadmap, who was Barcelona-bound the same summer.
Under Simeone’s guidance, Griezmann transformed from a promising winger into one of the world’s best forwards, winning the 2018 World Cup with France.
However Felix’s first two-and-a-half seasons with the club have not seen him blossom into the star he was expected to be, and Simeone snatched Griezmann back from Barcelona last summer to supplement the attack.
Felix would not be the first forward to fail at Atletico Madrid, with Alessio Cerci, Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and various others not meshing with Simeone.
Having only played 26 games in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, many believe Atletico were too hasty to snap up Felix and drastically overpaid for the then 19-year-old.
But beyond the odd exception, it takes time to mould a teenager into a world-class talent. A few miles away in the Spanish capital, Real Madrid are finally getting the best of Vinicius Junior, for example.
And in the last few weeks, Felix, 22, seems to have turned a corner. And with him, Atletico, from a season that quickly fell into frustration and struggle from the joyous highs of their title success.
Felix’s Champions League display against Manchester United in February was one of his finest in an Atletico Madrid shirt.
The forward broke the deadlock with a superb header that left former Atletico goalkeeper David de Gea with no chance, created danger with his dribbling and could only be stopped by foul means more often than fair.
It might have provided the Rojiblancos with a famous victory, but their defensive frailty allowed Anthony Elanga to equalise and leave the tie finely poised, ahead of Tuesday night’s second leg at Old Trafford.
Atletico fans voted Felix their player of the month for February and he has five goals in his last five games across all competitions. Four of them have come in the first seven minutes of matches, ‘opening the can’ for Simeone.
The pity is that it has taken this long for Felix to click into gear, with an ankle injury in the second half of last season partly to blame. It cemented Correa and Suarez as Atletico’s best options as they drove towards the title and contributed to the stop-start beginning to this campaign.
After missing the opening three games Simeone handed him a couple of substitute appearances, and he was sent off in the second, against Athletic Bilbao.
A further calf injury sidelined him for three more games, including the 1-0 home defeat by AC Milan in the Champions League. Then he missed Atletico’s first win after four straight La Liga defeats with Covid-19.
Felix has only completed the 90 minutes five times this season, although his goal glut and improving work rate and focus on the pitch have earned him five consecutive starts.
With extra minutes comes confidence, and with confidence comes goals. The first in his recent run was against Osasuna in a 3-0 win, an immediate reaction after Atletico’s worst result of the season, a 1-0 home defeat by bottom of the table Levante on February 16. Simeone liked what he saw from Felix and the team.
“One more from the flop,” wrote his brother Hugo sarcastically on Twitter, after the striker broke the deadlock against Real Betis on March 6, the first of a brace.
And it was Felix again who struck a third-minute goal against Cadiz last Friday to keep Atletico fourth in La Liga.
“If at times he’s sinned, with a certain disconnection, now he is motivated and enjoying himself,” wrote Madrid-based newspaper AS.
There has been a lot of speculation about a departure from Atletico in the summer, although that was before his recent surge.
Now he is threatening to make good on his potential, Atletico will be loathed to let him go, and his contract runs until 2026.
The numbers are starting to reflect his quality. Felix ranks seventh in La Liga for non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes and is climbing.
He is on course for his best goalscoring season in Spain with eight in total already, two behind the 10 he managed in 2020-21, speaking to both his prior struggles and his current improvement.
“Everybody needs time and he is doing what we ask of him,” enthused Simeone. “Above all he adds goals, talent, one on one ability, vision of the game, speed, he’s good in the air, works in his zone defensively, and all of that is great for him.
"He’ll get mad and he’ll be mad at me, but one day he’ll thank me.”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect – unsurprisingly – is Felix’s increased running. With Griezmann as an example, he now understands sometimes he must sacrifice himself for the team, gritting his teeth and defending. In return, he gets more time to shine, and his form has seen Simeone bench Suarez.
As much as the Uruguayan would love to face Manchester United, it is Felix’s spot to lose now.
He finally has Simeone’s trust. And he will be playing not just to keep it, but to earn legend status on the pitch and in Atletico hearts, and not just in the archives.