Dortmund v Real Madrid: Back-up stars Brahim and Guller helping build Los Blancos dynasty

Moroccan and Turkish attackers have made a big impact this season, with Kylian Mbappe's imminent arrival set to give Champions League finalists a fearsome array of offensive talent

Brahim Diaz celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid against RB Leipzig in the Champions League last-16 first leg. Getty Images
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At the outset of a season that could, at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, conclude with Real Madrid claiming their second Liga and European Cup double in three years, the Spanish club talked boldly about transition, of a squad in rejuvenation. Their summer recruitment strategy spelt it out: it focused on generational talent, the kind of footballer who would be a figurehead, for club and country, for a decade to come.

But enough about Jude Bellingham, the English midfielder, who at 20, has just been named the Spanish league’s Footballer the Year.

How about the Turkish kid who, in the run-in to Real’s securing the domestic title, scored five times in four games? Or Brahim Diaz, the creative spark whose goals eased Madrid through both the group stage and the last-16 phase of the Champions League and who returned the best ratio of assists per minute in the triumphant Liga campaign of all Madrid’s attacking players?

By no means is Bellingham the sole new arrival around whom a European Cup winner’s medal, should Borussia Dortmund be defeated in London on Saturday evening, will look like a dazzling endorsement of shrewd transfer business and the firm promise of an enduring Madrid dynasty.

The Turkish teenager, Arda Guler, who joined at the same time, is already regarded with some awe by older, worldlier colleagues for the technique and audacity he shows, day in day out, on the training pitch.

The frustration for Guler is opportunities to transfer all that to match-day action have been limited. But he’ll only turn 20 in February and acknowledges he was bought, from Fenerbahce, for his long-term potential. “He doesn’t need to rush at his age,” said Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti.

“I came here knowing it might be the case I wouldn’t play many minutes,” Guler told La Razon newspaper. Yet he was determined not to go out on loan to somewhere he would have seen more first-team action; rather, he concentrated on making the few Madrid minutes count.

And how. Guler’s six Liga goals this term, most of them concentrated into the last month of the campaign, have come at a rate of just over one per every hour on the pitch.

He may not get further than a seat on the bench against Dortmund, but he has many years of Champions League football to look forward to. And the wider world can expect to see a good deal of him over the next six weeks at the European Championship, where he will have a significant role for Turkey.

Last July, Madrid also reinforced their attacking arsenal by signing the player around whom Morocco’s longer-term future as a rising force in the international arena is framed. Or rather, they re-signed Brahim, originally hired from Manchester City as a teenager in 2019. Brahim won his first Liga title – to go with his Premier League winner’s medal from City – the following season, although back then he was restricted to a similar diet of cameo appearances to the one Guler has lived off.

The 24-year-old Brahim, who in March committed to representing Morocco internationally ahead of his native Spain, is a much finessed player. After three seasons at AC Milan – where, initially on loan and then contracted with a buyback clause to Madrid, he won Serie A in 2022 – he has become vital to Ancelotti’s game plan, albeit quite often from off the bench.

“He’s got real character,” said Ancelotti, “and although he didn’t get so many minutes at the beginning of the season, he’s shown his quality and personality. He always brings something to a game.” When that something was a flashy back-heel, back in the autumn, Ancelotti reprimanded Brahim for taking an unnecessary risk; the coach and player’s respect for one another has developed since that incident.

Brahim has a firm stamp on the European campaign. He struck the goal, against Braga, that put Madrid through from the group stage. He scored the crucial goal that, in a tight tie against RB Leipzig, pushed Madrid into their quarter-final against City.

He came on, to help turn the tide, in the semi-final against Bayern Munich. Madrid were trailing 3-2 on aggregate with less than 10 minutes remaining when Ancelotti introduced him. It launched a dramatic comeback to ensure they reached Wembley, where they will be favourites against a spirited but underdog Dortmund.

Ancelotti, looking ahead to a possible 15th European Cup for the club’s trophy vault, will likely name Brahim as a substitute for the final, and while he insisted Guler’s form since April means the Turk “could be useful during the game” it will be as a Plan C, rather than Plan B.

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Beyond this weekend, the hierarchy will shift further. Madrid, expected to line up with Vinicius Junior attacking from the left, Rodrygo from the opposite flank and Bellingham the most advanced midfielder in front of Toni Kroos – on his last club match before retiring – Fede Valverde and Edu Camavinga, will in the coming days confirm the addition of Kylian Mbappe, whose contract with Paris Saint-Germain is expiring, to their staff.

The France captain can all but assume he has a place in next season’s starting XI. Vinicius, undroppable, may even be required to move from his preferred left-sided role to accommodate 25-year-old Mbappe. For the other ambitious young forwards, the jostle for minutes on the pitch is about to turn still more competitive.

Rodrygo, 23, is understood to be feeling restless about his future. Guler will be targeting far more than the four starting XI appearances his promising 2023-24 Liga campaign yielded. Brahim, that serial collector of league titles across countries, is entitled to regard himself as far more than a back-up as he approaches a very big year in his professional life.

In 2025, Morocco will be hosting the Africa Cup of Nations, the eyes of a country will be on their medalled Real Madrid man, looking upon Brahim as a star and not as an understudy.

Updated: June 01, 2024, 7:22 AM