Real Madrid’s latest ‘crisis’ has led to plenty of internal debate about the merits of expensive superstars versus homegrown commitment ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Roma at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Even though most Blancos supporters and pundits remain happy to have a ‘galactico’ on the bench in Zinedine Zidane - recent weeks have seen a call to give less high-profile but hungrier young players a chance to show they are up to the task of representing their club.
The painful 0-1 home defeat to Atletico Madrid on February 27th saw big name signings including James Rodriguez and Isco whistled by their own team’s fans. Cristiano Ronaldo suggesting after the game that not all his teammates were up to his own excellent level also led to a reflexive defence of the kids from many around the Bernabeu.
Zidane then chose former B-team players Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro for last Wednesday’s La Liga trip at Levante, with 18-year-old centre-forward Borja Mayoral also getting a first senior start. All had decent games, with Lucas winning the penalty Ronaldo converted to open the scoring, and Mayoral’s low 20 yard shot rebounding off the post and Levante keeper Diego Mariño for another goal in a comfortable 3-1 win.
Blancos fans and reporters, who feel that the club’s most expensive superstars do not always try as hard as they should, were happy with what they saw.
AS editor Alfred Relaño wrote about how throughout history Madrid had turned to the ‘cantera’ youth system in times of crisis, while 24-year-old Vazquez got a rare Marca cover to himself. Both papers also bigged up statistics that Vazquez had run further than any teammate in the Levante game as proof of the kid's honesty and commitment to the cause.
Last Friday, Madrid’s coach was reminded of the ‘Zidanes and Pavones’ idea of his own playing career - a policy promoted by club president Florentino Perez during his first term, which ended in embarrassing failure.
“I never liked the ‘Zidanes and Pavones’ idea,” was the cautious response. “It always happens that young players come in. In the dressing-room we are all the same.”
Nevertheless, Lucas Perez, Casemiro and Borja Mayoral all kept their starting places for Saturday’s home fixture against Celta Vigo, with James stuck on the bench all through the game. The players were greeted by a club-approved banner at the Bernabeu recalling the famous quote from Blancos legend Alfredo Di Stefano's that “to wear this badge, you have to sweat the shirt.”
There was more unrest in the stands through the game as Madrid struggled to put away an injury-hit Celta. Ronaldo was singled out for special barracking, although he then responded with four fine goals within 26 second half minutes. Which was [obviously] something beyond the reach of Casemiro, Vazquez or Mayoral.
That game also saw €101 million signing Gareth Bale return after six weeks out injured, and mark his late substitute appearance with a well-taken goal. Bale now looks sure to start against Roma on Tuesday, while Marcelo, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are also back from their various injury problems and available to play.
So Zidane now has to decide how many big names return to the starting XI, and which players should make way. All Madrid coaches, including most recently Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez, are also well aware that club chief Perez likes to see his own big signings playing on the big occasions.
The most natural change it seems could be for Casemiro to keep his place in deep midfield - with Kroos and Modric either side and the Brazilian holding his position and allowing his more talented teammates to get on with the playmaking. This would mean, most likely, that Florentino’s €80 million summer 2014 investment James would again remain on the bench.
Pundit Antonio Romero, a good barometer of feeling among locally based Madrid fans, said on El Larguero radio show over the weekend that how Zidane treats Casemiro now will be a “measure” of the Frenchman’s “bravery”.
“With Casemiro we will really see the measure of Zidane,” said Romero. “He is the only pure number 5 (defensive midfielder) in the squad. He played that role well under Benitez, but in the important games like the Clasico against Barcelona, Benitez left him out. Casemiro is doing well again now, but on Tuesday almost everyone will be back. We will see if Zidane is brave then.”
Up front Ronaldo and Bale are sure to start - with Karim Benzema still out injured. A clue to Zidane’s thinking came with Mayoral allowed back to play with the Under-19s in this week’s UEFA Youth League game against Benfica. That then leaves a gap in the three man front line - which could also be filled by James or Isco, although that would mean Vazquez missing out - unfairly according to Romero.
“We will also see with Lucas Vazquez,” he said. “Benitez was very unfair with Lucas Vazquez, as he played very well every time he played, then disappeared. Zidane has only played him when he had no option. I don’t know who should be left out, James or Isco or both, but if the coach is brave then both Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez should be starters.”
An hour before kick-off tonight, when Madrid’s starting XI is announced for their first Champions League game at the Bernabeu of 2016, with all the world watching including Florentino up in the stands, we will see what Zidane thinks.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan