It is three weeks since the fateful Madrid derby, Real Madrid's first defeat at the Bernabeu stadium under the fresh management of Zinedine Zidane.
It is 21 days since Cristiano Ronaldo, speaking with an authority that might have been interpreted as if he felt that he, and not the coach, has the most important voice in the dressing-room, cast doubt on the standards of the Real squad, as the club reconciled itself, after losing 1-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, to the certainty there would be no Primera Liga trophy at the Santiago Bernabeu this season.
That day, Ronaldo spoke to reporters on his way out of a stadium where loud boos and shrill whistles had been heard against the home team and he named junior players in a percussive post-match interview in which he said “if everybody was at my level, we’d be top” and implied very strongly that the back-up talent when the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, or Marcelo were missing was not championship-winning material.
“I’m not saying Jese, or Lucas Vazquez are not good players, but …” What he seemed to be saying is that these youngsters were not good enough to raise Madrid, who face Sevilla on Sunday trailing leaders Barcelona by 12 points in the Primera Division, closer to the summit.
Ronaldo apologised, alerted that the quotes sounded like a slur on colleagues. What has happened since is that a brigade of younger players, including Jese and Lucas have been given not less but more chance by Zidane to show that, perhaps, in the not too distant future, they have broad enough shoulders, quick enough feet and wise enough heads to make disgruntled madridistas proud of a part of the club that has had a background role for much of the 21st century: Its academy, or the 'Factory' as, in more productive days, the Madrid youth system used to be known.
Zidane himself was once the symbol of Madrid’s preferred model of how to achieve success, made the most expensive player in football history in 2001, when Florentino Perez, the Madrid president then, as now, bought him, a 29-year-old attacking midfielder, from Juventus. Perez coined a phrase: his model was about ‘Zidanes and Pavons’. Paco Pavon was a young defender who had come through the ranks. Poor Pavon. He is best remembered because his name was in that catchphrase; he is not remembered as a great centre-half.
Perez could have said ‘Zidanes and Casillases’. The goalkeeper Iker Casillas remains the best 21st century example of a Madrid academy player who soared, becoming Madrid and Spain captain after graduating, young, from The Factory. But he is gone now. And he was conspicuous because not too many others from the academy have become indispensable in the way he was for the best part of 15 years.
Barcelona put Madrid to shame in that respect with their supply of fine homegrown players – from Lionel Messi to Andres Iniesta to Sergio Busquets – but in the last few weeks, Zidane, whose previous job was in charge of Castilla, the senior feeder team of the Madrid academy, has been making a strong point. He has picked academy alumni and let them show Ronaldo what they have: effort, gumption and no little skill.
Last weekend, at Las Palmas, the midfielder Casemiro scored the winning goal, close to full-time, in a 2-1 win. Jese scored in the previous Liga win, the 7-1 thrashing of Celta Vigo, when Lucas set up two of those goals, and covered more distance in his duties as a winger mindful of his attacking and defensive duties than any other Madrid player.
Casemiro, a 24-year-old Brazilian who spent last season on loan at Porto and the striker Jese, 23, are academy graduates who have been involved in the senior team, intermittently, for three seasons. Lucas is 24, so was due a breakthrough. But Borja Mayoral, 18, and promoted by Zidane to the first-team squad, is fresher-faced. “He is our second-choice number nine,” declared Zidane, boldly, picking him to start against Levante two weeks back in the absence of the injured Benzema. Borja has impressed, and, even in the company of opinionated superstars, does not look short of confidence.
FIXTURES (All times UAE)
Getafe v Eibar, late
Sporting Gijon v Atletico Madrid, 7pm
Granada v Rayo Vallecano, 9.15pm
Real Sociedad v Las Palmas, 9.15pm
Deportivo Coruna v Levante, 11.30pm
Real Betis v Malaga, 1.05am
Espanyol v Athletic Club, 3pm
Villarreal v Barcelona, 7pm
Valencia v Celta Vigo, 9.15pm
Real Madrid v Sevilla, 11.30pm
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