Following the departure of Diego Costa to Chelsea last summer – one of the worst kept secrets in our title run-in the previous season – speculation was rife as to who Atleti would choose to fill his boots in 2014/15.
Over the last few years, the red and whites have earned a reputation for their fantastic frontmen, and whoever was to come in had a big billing to live up to.
However, top of the range centre-forwards do not come cheap.
In June, we flirted with the idea of Romelu Lukaku, but he eventually went to Everton for a fee in excess of €30 million. Then it looked as if Álvaro Negredo was poised to make the move, but it never materialised.
Roberto Soldado’s name was also mentioned, and like every summer, there was a brief moment where fans allowed themselves to get carried away with rumours of a return for their prodigal son, Fernando Torres.
But as it turned out, Mario Mandžukić was the chosen one. For €22 million we acquired the number nine of the German champions, a man with international pedigree and a goal to his name in the Champions League final of the previous year.
Not everybody was pleased though, and the Croatian had a lot of doubts to dispel right from the start. We even looked at what Mario had to do to become a success.
Everybody knew that Mandžukić was good striker, but many considered him to be a step down from the real elite goalscorers of the game. After all, Bayern had replaced him with Robert Lewandowski after he was deemed surplus to requirements. He had even asked to leave following an on-going dispute with manager Pep Guardiola.
He isn’t fast like Diego Costa and Torres, skilful like Kun Agüero, as deadly as Falcao or capable of scoring golazos like Forlán. But Mandžukić is a fighter, and has the spirit that personifies this team.
Having found the net just once in pre-season (a penalty against former club Wolfsburg), the 28-year-old bought himself some time early on with the winning goal in the Spanish Super Cup, an excellent first time effort against Real Madrid in the Vicente Calderón.
In La Liga though, it took him a while to find his flow. He suffered an injury in the Champions League defeat to Olympiacos, which forced him out of action for games against Almería and Celta Vigo.
However, his passion and hunger soon became evident. In Athens, he headed home an important goal despite having a broken nose, and returned ahead of schedule for the vital end of the month clash against Sevilla – masked and ready for battle.
For Mandžukić, every game is life or death. As we saw in Thursday’s cup draw against Hospitalet, he takes no opponent lightly and lives for scoring goals. Comfortably into the next round and against third tier opposition, you could see what it meant to him when he put us back in front towards the end, and he was giving just as much as he would in a derby or a final.
A lot of people questioned whether he would fit into the team, in particular given Simeone’s reluctance to trust new players right from the start, but as each game passes by, it looks more and more like we have found the perfect fit.
With 14 goals in 22 matches this season – 10 in his last 14 and all from open play – Mandžukić has numbers that none of our recent stars can match in their debut seasons. Even Falcao only had 12 goals by Christmas in 2011, four of those from the penalty spot.
He has also scored in all four competitions he has played, backing up the point that he plays each and every game as if his life depends on it, no matter the situation or opposition.
Like with our other strikers, we’ll judge the former Bayern man once he has moved on, but at the moment, his level is more than comparable with some of the big names that have graced the Calderón in seasons past.
How pleased have you been with Mandžukić so far? Can he establish himself amongst the great Atleti strikers?