With Ronaldo gone, only Griezmann can hope to stop Messi

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid has left a gaping hole at Real Madrid and in the Spanish league.

How will Madrid ever replace the forward who scored an average of 50 goals per season for nine straight years?

The answer, of course, is that it won’t.

The only player capable of producing a similar impact is the longtime leader of Madrid’s biggest rival. So Ronaldo’s departure appears to have given Barcelona free reign to increase its almost perennial hold on the Spanish league title.

But it also gives Antoine Griezmann, boosted by France’s World Cup victory, an excellent opportunity to make Atletico Madrid the Spanish capital’s top team.

Here is a look at the biggest impacts Ronaldo’s move to Italian champion Juventus could have across the Spanish league.

ONE-MAN SHOW

Despite its revenue disparity with the Premier League, the Spanish league has offered the greatest two-man duel in the world’s most popular sport for nearly a decade.

Constantly being compared and measured against one another, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo pushed each other to ever greater heights. Their hunger to shine made it normal for them to not just score, but score in bunches, with each earning five Ballon d’Or awards.

Now Messi, Barcelona and the Spanish league face the pair of “clasico” matches without Ronaldo dressed in white.

Messi has helped Barcelona win nine Spanish league titles in the past 14 seasons, including last year when the Catalan club lost only once in 38 matches.

And Madrid’s loss should be Barcelona’s gain, making the team the clear favorite to remain on top even after midfield great Andres Iniesta left for Japan and Paulinho returned to the Chinese league.

Barcelona has brought in midfielders Arturo Vidal and Arthur, defender Clement Lenglet, and winger Malcom, and it looks to give more of a leading role to Philippe Coutinho as its playmaker for Messi and Luis Suarez.

REALITY CHECK

Ronaldo turned off more than one neutral fan by his constant preening, muscle flexing and bouts of pouting when the praise didn’t consistently go his way. But no one can argue with his unmatched work ethic.

The 33-year-old Ronaldo’s departure leaves Madrid without its all-time leading scorer — 451 goals in 438 matches — and the main engine behind its run of three straight Champions League titles.

So life after Ronaldo will be hard to adjust to for the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu, who at times harshly jeered the Portugal forward but will surely miss his spectacular performances.

If losing its best player in club history wasn’t enough, Madrid also lost coach Zinedine Zidane, who quit after the team won its record-extending 13th European Cup in May.

Julen Lopetegui has replaced Zidane, but he arrives with his reputation tarnished after being fired from Spain’s national team two days before its World Cup opener for having negotiated his contract with Madrid behind the back of the Spanish soccer federation.

As for not having Ronaldo to count on, Lopetegui said: “As a coach, it is a thrilling challenge to build a competitive team without Cristiano.”

Gareth Bale, who at times struggled to make Zidane’s starting lineup, now has a chance to become Madrid’s focal point in attack. Midfielders Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and 22-year-old Marco Asensio, coming off his breakout season, should also play more consistently.

“We are convinced that Bale will have a great year and we are expecting a lot from him,” Lopetegui said. “We will work to get the most from him.”

Madrid president Florentino Perez has held off on a blockbuster move to replace Ronaldo. Instead, Madrid focused on the future by signing right back Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad and a pair Brazilian teenagers in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. The club also added Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who will be competing for the starting position with Keylor Navas.

ATLETICO’S CHANCE

With Madrid entering an uncertain period, could Atletico Madrid seize the moment and truly become Barcelona’s most dangerous challenger?

Atletico’s offseason appears to indicate the club senses the moment has arrived.

The club, which won the 2014 Spanish league title, will hope to benefit from the boost in confidence that Griezmann received from winning the World Cup with France only a few weeks after the forward led Atletico to the Europa League title.

Griezmann’s decision to reject an offer by Barcelona and remain as Atletico’s top player has been followed by the team signing wingers Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins. The club also snatched 22-year-old defensive midfielder Rodrigo “Rodri” Hernandez from Villarreal, and added Croatia forward Nikola Kalinic from AC Milan.