Before the season began, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti set his talented young midfielder Federico Valverde a challenge. “If you aren’t capable of scoring 10 goals in a season, I’ll tear up my coaching licence and retire,” the Italian joked to the Uruguayan.
The motivation is evidently working. In this, Valverde’s fifth season in Madrid’s first-team squad, he has already matched his best tally – three goals – for a single campaign, and will go into Sunday’s city derby against Atletico with a pair of spectacular strikes fresh in his memory.
Against Mallorca last weekend, he ran from midway inside his own half, swerved past opponents to their right and their left before unleashing a piledriver to launch a comeback from behind that ended with Real winning 4-1.
On Wednesday, with Madrid struggling to assert themselves against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, he thundered in another left-footer to set the European champions on a path to a 2-0 triumph.
As eye-catching as the goal was the celebration – fists clenched, knees bent, voice roaring. “Nadalesque”, the newspaper El Pais called the gesture, put in mind of Rafa Nadal, the tennis superstar and ardent Madridista.
Ancelotti liked the emphatic expression of joy from the 24-year-old, who, he said, sometimes conceals his broad range of skills. “He’s been scoring with his left foot,” noted Ancelotti of the last two Valverde wonderstrikes, “He’s got a great shot on him, but I’d never seen him shoot with the left.”
So another box is dutifully ticked in the expanding skill set of Valverde, a footballer whose development at Real has been a grand tour of different positions – from full-back to midfield-anchor, to playmaker, to winger, and an exercise in diligent patience.
Mallorca 1 Real Madrid 4: player ratings
When he was signed, as a teenager, from Penarol in 2016, the fabled midfield trio that have shared in four Champions League successes together – Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos – were already well established, leaving limited opportunities for understudies.
But last season Valverde became their fourth musketeer. He started all but one of the rollercoaster knockout games that guided Madrid to the last Champions League final. There, he provided the cross for the Vinicius Junior goal that beat Liverpool and delivered the European Cup.
With Casemiro transferred to Manchester United in the summer, a new look midfield is taking shape, Modric and Kroos still in situ, but with Valverde, Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga adding youthful energy, and, with useful timing, Valverde now adding goals to his repertoire.
Real may have to go into the derby without their chief finisher, Karim Benzema who is recovering from a muscular injury he sustained against Celtic last week.
His lay-off exposes a lack of back-up at centre-forward and is one area in which the wealthiest club in Madrid might look with a little envy at the balance of resources on their neighbours’ roster: for Atletico, Alvaro Morata should lead the line against Real, alongside Joao Felix, with Matheus Cunha and Angel Correa on the bench.
Then there’s Antoine Griezmann, whose absence from Atletico’s starting XIs, and clockwork-regular appearances as a substitute just after the hour of matches are becoming a source of frustration – for his manager Diego Simeone.
Griezmann’s minutes on the pitch are being limited by complex contractual issues, with Simeone instructed by his bosses that, ideally, the France World Cup-winning striker should play for fewer than 45 minutes per game.
The reasoning is financial: Atletico believe that the two-year loan agreement that brought Griezmann back to them from Barcelona in September last year states they have to buy him for €40 million if he plays for more than half a game in 50 per cent of the fixtures he is available for.
In 2021/22, Griezmann played more than that, appearing for more than 45 minutes in 81 per cent of his games. But this season, the percentage is reducing because Griezmann only ever comes on with half an hour or less to go.
Barcelona, where Griezmann’s contract expires in 2024, are considering action against Atletico, claiming that the €40m could and should have been triggered after the first season of the loan.
They believe Atletico are now engineering a situation where they can negotiate a lower transfer fee or threaten Barca with no obligatory purchase at all.
As those two clubs quarrel about Griezmann’s level of activity, Real happily watch on. Griezmann scored against them for five successive years in Madrid derbies during his first spell at Atletico. If he is restricted to a seat on the bench and just 30 minutes on the pitch this weekend, Ancelotti will not mind.