Garcia flourishing under inspirational Simeone
13 March 2014, 17:48
Madrid - Atletico Madrid's in-form midfielder Raul Garcia possibly demonstrates better than anyone in the La Liga club's squad how coach Diego Simeone has managed to get the best from players previously seen as underachievers.
Deployed in a more offensive role than in past seasons, Garcia has netted 15 goals in all competitions, including four in the Champions League, comfortably surpassing his previous best tally of 11 when he was on loan at Osasuna in his native Pamplona in 2011-12.
His header against AC Milan in Tuesday's 4-1 Champions League win at the Calderon, which put Atletico into the quarter-finals of Europe's elite club competition for the first time since 1997, was a typically accomplished effort and cemented his new status as one of the most popular team members among the club's supporters.
For a player largely unloved and considered rather mediocre for most of his career, he has developed a remarkable level of self-confidence and even came close to scoring with a spectacular overhead kick.
Atletico's long-suffering fans chanted his name and gave him a rousing ovation when he was substituted late in the match, a significant turnaround from their treatment of him in the past.
"It's a nice thing and I am grateful but my attitude is the same as ever, in football and in life," Garcia said in an interview with As sports daily published on Thursday.
"I am a humble person who fights to achieve his goals and who always looks to get ahead," the 27-year-old added.
"I am happy, it's an honour and very important to me to be part of the history of a club as great as Atletico Madrid."
Garcia and others who have impressed since Simeone took over at the end of 2011 - like captain Gabi, playmaker Koke and forward Diego Costa - will be crucial to Atletico's hopes of silverware this season.
They are second in La Liga ahead of Saturday's match at home to Espanyol (2100 GMT), three points behind leaders Real Madrid with 11 games left.
Atletico last month rewarded Garcia, one of three club captains, with a contract extension to the end of June 2018 and sporting director Jose Luis Perez Caminero described him as "one of the strongest characters in the dressing room."
A product of the Osasuna youth academy, he joined Atletico in 2007 and as well as strength in the air he is blessed with a fierce shot and is a highly effective tackler.
His performances this term have attracted the attention of Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who has said Garcia is one of the fringe players he is looking at before deciding who to take to the World Cup finals in Brazil.
"We all have to do our jobs and I am feeling good," Garcia told As.
"We are all here to help the team and make sure Atletico is competing in all the competitions. Our focus is now on Espanyol."
Champions Barcelona play at home to Osasuna on Sunday (1600) and Real can pull seven points clear of their arch rivals, whom they host for the "Clasico" on March 23, with a win at Malaga on Saturday (1900).
Athletic Bilbao are seven points clear in Spain's fourth and final Champions League spot and can pull further away from fifth-placed Villarreal when they visit them on Monday (2100).
Bilbao's Basque rivals Real Sociedad, in sixth, host eighth-placed Valencia on Sunday (2000).