From hero to zero and back again, Diego Forlan’s rollercoaster year at Atletico Madrid

“The Uruguayan wrote his name in the annals of the Rojiblancos,” claimed Marca. “He became immortal in Hamburg. Forlan was Neptune, the God of the European seas and chief of the Rojiblancos family.”

Diego Forlan had just netted twice as Atletico Madrid lifted the Europa League: their first major European trophy in almost half a century. The front-man continued to dazzle international audiences that summer with a leading role in Uruguay’s unexpected run to the 2010 World Cup semi-finals, earning the Golden Ball in the process.

However, amid a wave of in-fighting, injuries and patchy form, the 2010-11 season that followed was perhaps the most turbulent of his career, and undoubtedly his poorest since his fledgling days at Old Trafford. The 32-year-old’s Atleti career looked to have ended during this rapid, unexpected decline, but in light of a rejuvenated summer, Forlan finds himself having come full circle at the Vicente Calderon, and once again expected to lead Atletico Madrid forward.

Despite the early flurry of transfer speculation last summer, President Enrique Cerezo was in no mood to entertain the sale of his prize asset. Forlan’s performances in the latter stages of the Europa League marked the culmination of three excellent years with Atletico. He went on to greater heights still in South Africa – plundering five goals, three from outside the box – to further entice the overtures of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Cerezo stood firm and sought to build on the euphoria that swept over Atletico last summer by bringing in fellow World Cup star Diego Godin and enterprising left wing-back Filipe Luis.

Yet for Forlan and Atletico Madrid, 2010-11 was largely a season to forget. The typical post-tournament hangover was in evidence as the forward struggled through the autumn, going 12 games without scoring. This run of poor form concluded in a miserable winter when the Uruguayan fell out with teammates, Coach and fans.

In January he vocalised his frustration with the club’s supporters: “I try to go through my life not owing anything to anyone. I am hired, and my performance is there. I try to do my best both on and off the pitch, giving a good image in my behaviour. But it bothers me when the stands have little patience with me. They have their reasons. I try to see the positive side of things.”

Things got worse still when it was claimed in El Pais that certain players were refusing to pass to Forlan amid a raft of internal politics. An un-named teammate confirmed the fear after a notable outburst in the February’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla: “From where I was I saw things I didn’t agree with, that didn’t send out a message of togetherness with regards to the team. For example, Reyes completely ignored Forlan and preferred to keep the ball under pressure from four opponents before passing. It’s a problem we’ve had a long time, practically since Diego got us into the Champions League in 2009/10.”

In March, Forlan was eventually dropped by Coach Quique Sanchez Flores, ending a relationship that had soured beyond repair, with the striker particularly annoyed at what he perceived as Sanchez Flores’ decision to play him through the season with a recurring ankle injury: “He had a problem with me, it was not the other way around,” Forlan told Marca. “I realised there was nothing to do when one day he told me one thing and did another [promised he would start against Espanyol and then left him on the bench]. I had no problems with him but he stopped greeting me and I did the same.” Having started the season on the crest of a wave, the former Villarreal striker finished it as a misfiring substitute, scoring just once in the last four months of a disappointing campaign for los Rojiblancos as they languished in seventh place.

A change of scenery for Forlan appeared inevitable. Atletico were reportedly keen to offload the striker and a deal with Turkish club Besiktas was all but wrapped up before he went off to join Uruguay for this summer’s Copa America. Forlan however was reluctant to move unless he was able to secure a ‘really good deal with another team’. With the suitors of the previous two transfer windows – Inter, Juventus, Milan, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur – no longer interested, that transfer out of the club has not materialised. Instead, Forlan declared his happiness to remain, whilst Sanchez Flores departed as Coach.

Forlan’s change of heart was reflected in his summer’s performances, as Uruguay’s talisman once again delivered on the international stage, helping his country to the 2011 Copa America title. Four days after his double in the final against Paraguay in Buenos Aires, he was in action for Atletico Madrid against Stromsgodest in the home leg of their Europa League qualifying tie and played a part in the team’s first goal of the 2011-12 season. His commitment to the cause was welcomed by los Colchoneros who gave him a rousing reception when he was substituted in the second half. Under a new Coach and having seemingly repaired relations with the fans, Forlan finds himself centre of Atleti’s plans once more.

With the emerging talents of David De Gea and Sergio Aguero departing for the Premier League, supporters of los Rojiblancos are looking forward with some trepidation towards this year’s campaign. Where the calibre of players to have joined Atletico has not yet alleviated concern, the retention of a fit and on-form Diego Forlan could well be the most important decision made by new sporting director Jose Luis Caminero this transfer window.

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