You’re about to play in your first Champions League final. How does it feel?
I’m relaxed but also excited. I want to approach the game as I have done all season, working in the same way and trusting in my teammates and the coaching staff.
What’s your first memory of a Champions League final?
The 2005 final between Liverpool and Milan. I was in a hotel just before leaving my village to travel to San Sebastián. It was a crazy, beautiful game. It was one that will stay in the memory, especially if you were on the winning side…
Did you think then that one day you’d play in one?
I dreamed of it when I left home, I wanted to play in a Champions League final. It was one of my objectives. When you want to be a footballer you dream about playing in the most beautiful games and this is one of them.
What advice have you followed to get to where you are?
To work hard and enjoy it. Working hard always gives you a reward, but you have to enjoy what you’re doing. When I’m happy on and off the pitch you can see it in my game. When in that frame of mind is when I play well.
This season you’ve beaten your own scoring record before the Champions League and the European Championship.
I’m happy with my performance level and the goals. I’m really happy in my private life and I think that’s been translated to the pitch.
Has becoming a father changed your outlook?
Not yet. The kid still spends a lot of time sleeping and eating. At the moment her dad doesn’t have much to do but every time I go home I’m really excited about seeing her.
You left home very young to move to another country and your career has been fast-track. Atlético had to try twice to sign you before you accepted. Why was that?
I didn’t feel ready to leave Real Sociedad. I needed to learn. The team was in good shape, we had the quality to do more than just stay up. In the end we got into the Champions League although we didn’t do so well. But we achieved that dream. It was really nice to play in Europe with the club that gave me everything.
When Atlético signed you it was to play as a secondary striker, with the responsibility for the goals. Did you see yourself in that role at the time?
I remember I was on holiday in Turkey and I got a call to meet Gil Marín in Lyon. That’s when he told me they wanted me to play in that position. I said: “Perfect. I like to be close to the area. I’m not a player who limits myself to beating a defender and crossing. I can play one-twos, give assists and score goals.” So I liked the idea, I thought it would be good.
But the responsibility for scoring is a big one. How do you cope with it?
I need responsibility to grow, to learn. I ask the manager and my teammates for it. When I go out to play I always intend to score and assist goals.
And when you’ve scored for a few weeks and then don’t for two and we write about your drought… do you think we’re mad?
I think it’s a case of runs. I’ve always said the same thing. You know that whatever you do there’ll come a time when you go five games without scoring. What before was an impossible shot or one from distance that went in, suddenly doesn’t. You go on runs, that’s it.
You said you were working to get close to Ronaldo and Messi. Do you think you’re close now?
I said I was working to be among the best and somebody took that and turned it into ‘I want to be like Ronaldo and Messi.’ I’m improving every year and I want to be one of the best, that the fans and kids see me as one of the best.
Have you stopped to think how far you can go?
No, that’s exactly one of my strong points. I don’t ask myself questions, I don’t overthink things. I just enjoy the moment.
What people have picked up on is that you put in the hard yards more than Messi and Ronaldo…
That’s the team’s style. You have to run and put in the effort for your teammates. I don’t care how much I have to run.
Philippe Montanier said in an interview with AS that you have learned that at Atlético, that you were a bit of a spoiled kid. Do you agree with that?
Yes, at Real Sociedad they bent over backwards to accommodate me. I remember when I had a problem or an ache or pain they’d say: “Don’t train, we’re going to take care of you.” That’s not the case here, quite the opposite. If I’m in pain I push myself on, I don’t want to let my head drop. I owe La Real a lot. I had problems, as everybody knows, when I was with the France under-21s and they always backed me. Montanier picked me the following weekend. They never said anything about it.
Jean-Pierre Papin said recently he saw no reason why you should leave Atlético because you’re already at a big club.
Exactly. I said Atlético was among the five best teams in Europe and the truth is that now we’re among the best two. Hopefully we’ll be the best in Europe… Atlético have given me an offer to carry on and I want to stay.
And you’re in talks…
Yes, I want to get it all sorted before the Euros so I can play in France with my mind at ease.
Papin won the Ballon d’Or…
I want to be one of the best. Why not…?
How do you take the criticism of Atlético’s play? Is it jealousy?
[Laughs]. That’s what it is. We play ugly football, with 11 men behind the ball, but that’s what suits us, that’s what makes us win every weekend, what got us to this final and we’re not going to change. If one day it doesn’t work, we’ll see, but we are happy with our tactics .
But do you enjoy yourself playing in this system?
Yes, because it’s football. At Atlético everybody defends. It’s true that people watching on television might not enjoy it but that’s the way it is. I don’t know if the criticism comes from jealousy but I don’t care. We trust our coach and our style of play.
Have you changed your favourite goal for the one against Bayern?
No, I still think it was the one against Lyon for Real Sociedad, because until that day my image in France was of the nightclub thing with the under-21s and I wanted to present another. That cross came in, I hit it, it went in and we were in the Champions League. Everything changed after that.
Do you worry about the image you transmit then?
Before I didn’t, but now I do. Now I see kids wearing my shirt and it’s great. I even think sometimes when I see one not wearing it: “Why doesn’t this kid have my shirt? I have to do better on the pitch so he buys it [laughs]” I like to give off a good image and make kids happy.
Is it more uncomfortable for Madrid to play Atlético or vice versa?
I think it’s the same for both. Madrid is a big club with huge stars who have won the Champions League already. They know what it is to play in the final. We’re a very difficult team to play against, we don’t concede many and that’s what we’ll try to do.
How do you beat Madrid in a final?
We have to play a great game and defend well. We have to take the chances we create.
What is your message to the fans?
To trust in us, everything will go well.
You’ve finally built up a chemistry with Fernando Torres. What was the process?
At the beginning it’s always hard. You don’t know the other player, how he loses defenders, if he likes the ball at his feet, in space, or if he plays one-twos… we lacked understanding at the start. The same thing happens to me with France. I’ve played a lot of games but I still don’t know what Payet, Giroud and Benzema prefer. I try to give Fernando the ball in the best positions and he knows where the goal is. I hope he scores the winner in Milan.
But you won’t be lining up against him potentially at the Euros, like some of your teammates…
These are the coach’s choices. Torres has had a great season. That Saúl got the call for me is logical because he has been playing fantastically. Koke is key for us, people don’t talk as much about him but he always delivers. And Juanfran is one of the best full backs in the league.
People don’t talk about Koke?
I think so, not as much as they should anyway. People focus on the forwards. And now they’re talking about Saúl because of the goal he scored against Bayern, going past five players. Koke gives a lot for the team, you don’t see it but we’re grateful for it.
Without Benzema you’re the favourite to lead the line at the Euros. Have you spoken to him?
I sent him a message when I heard the news to see if it was true. He said it was and I was gutted because he’s a great forward and a good friend. I haven’t spoken to him about the final but I’m sure there’ll be some messages…
It’s been a tough year and a half for France. Football doesn’t cure wounds but… have you talked about what a European Championship win would mean for the country?
Not yet, but I’m sure we will when the squad gets together. We can make people happy by winning it and we’re going to try.
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