Mateo Kovacic deserves more of a chance at Real Madrid and the Champions League final would be a good place to start

While Real Madrid set their sights on becoming the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era, manager Zinédine Zidane entrusted a string of fringe players to ensure that their quest for a first La Liga title in five years didn’t end in disappointment.

While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modrić were wrapped in cotton wool with one eye on knockout ties in Europe’s premier club competition against Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid, Álvaro Morata, Isco, Marco Asensio and co. took care of domestic matters.

Of all the so-called “B Team” players to have helped Los Blancos stay ahead of Barcelona in the title race throughout the run in, few impressed more than 23-year-old Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić.

Signed from Inter Milan for €29 million in the summer of 2015, Kovačić has found regular first-team game time hard to come by at the Santiago Bernabéu, perpetually stuck behind Modrić and Toni Kroos in the pecking order. The 1063 La Liga minutes he was afforded in 2015/16 was only really improved upon this term (1689 minutes) due to Madrid’s dual priorities – five of his 19 starts came from April onwards.

But when he does play, Kovačić rarely disappoints. His arrival in the Spanish capital came somewhat out of leftfield a couple of years ago, with Liverpool reportedly his most likely destination at the time, but the former Dinamo Zagreb youngster certainly fits the profile of a midfielder built to succeed at 11-time champions of Europe.

Tall, athletic and graceful, Kovačić wears the famous white shirt well. And from a technical standpoint, he has the full accompaniment of attributes required: an astute passer over all ranges; the vision to manoeuvre his team-mates around he pitch from deep; the ability to dribble through the centre of midfield to both evade the opponent’s press and open up space; and precision when shooting from distance.

Not a regular goal-scorer by any means, Kovačić has only found the net three times in his 73 appearances for Madrid, but that’s not his job. Just like Kroos and Modrić seldom trouble the scoresheet, when starting as a member of the midfield three in Zidane’s favoured 4-3-3 system, his job is to ensure possession is circulated quickly and accurately while feeding the attackers.

To that end, Kovačić has performed admirably this term, picking out a colleague with 91.3 per cent of his attempted passes – a figure only Kroos (92.2 per cent) can better of all the midfielders at Zidane’s disposal -- and making 0.9 key passes per 90 La Liga minutes.

In his limited Champions League action this season, Kovačić has been even more impressive, completing a phenomenal 95.5 per cent of his passes and making 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes.

Although, relative to his positional rivals at the Bernabéu, Kovačić remains inexperienced, he has shown that he has the temperament to perform at the highest level, which is perhaps the most vital tenet any player hoping to make it at one of the world’s biggest clubs must possess.

It would be easier for Kovačić to be subservient to his superstar peers and allow those around him to carry the creative burden – something André Gomes has struggled to overcome in his first season with rivals Barcelona. But the former Inter man’s willingness to take responsibility for conducting his side’s play is evidenced by the fact that he averages 55.1 passes per 90 in La Liga and a staggering 80.7 in the Champions League – more than any of his team-mates in continental competition this term.

Playing at the same club as the likes of Modrić and Kroos is both a blessing and a curse for a young midfielder. On one hand, there are no better playmakers in the world to study at the feet of; yet the presence of the top-class pair means that the path to a regular starting berth might be blocked for the foreseeable future.

Kovačić is too good to spend the majority of his time warming the bench. At 23, he is entering a phase of his career where he is no longer just a promising youngster, but a maturing player who needs regular game time in order to fulfil his potential; be that at Real Madrid or elsewhere.

With Modrić now in his early 30s, Madrid would be wise to cling onto Kovačić as the ideal eventual heir to his compatriot, already adapted to life inside the Bernabéu goldfish bowl and fully cognisant of what it means to represent Los Blancos. However, the former Serie A standout could be forgiven for weighing up his options this summer.

Barring any injuries to key players, the 35-cap Croatia international will again have to content himself with a substitute’s role for the upcoming Champions League final against Juventus. But Kovačić has shown that, if called upon, he can deliver at the highest level.