Despite his impressive season on loan with Espanyol in 2014-15, Rafael Benitez’s steadfast decision to retrieve Lucas Vazquez raised plenty of eyebrows in the capital. It wasn’t that the 24-year-old wasn’t respected in his ability; seeing a ‘canterano’ (academy product) return home was exciting if anything. It was merely a question of: how would he get time on the pitch?

Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Jese Rodriguez, Isco and Denis Cheryshev were all candidates for the wide positions, while the first three names are automatic selections as long as they are healthy. Though being deemed good enough to be considered by Benitez seemed great in its premise, the prospect of Vazquez making any meaningful contribution to his manager’s cause seemed speculative at best.

For the first few months of the season, there arrived little by the way of dissuasion. Vazquez was only entrusted with a single start against lowly Granada, and otherwise kept away from the fire of the bigger contests

At least, for as long as it could be helped.

Come October, with injuries plaguing the Madrid squad at an electrifying rate, and a series of high-stakes games approaching, the Galicia native would quickly have his own high stakes to deal with. His second and third starts of the season would come back-to-back; first in the Parc des Princes against Paris St-Germain, and then at Balaidos against Spain’s ‘other’ best team, Celta de Vigo.

Vazquez was Benitez’s responsibility – given his insistence to recoup him from Espanyol – and so the buck would inevitably fall with him if things went sour. Not to mention, the two fixtures were vital to the manager’s footing in the Spanish capital. If Madrid stumbled, the axe would have arrived right on queue, with neither coming out of the other side looking so pretty.

As it happened, Vazquez and Benitez have emerged looking quite the opposite. And while it might not provide much substance in the long-term for the Real Madrid manager, given the volatility of the role, the 24-year-old can have reason to believe of something more profound.

In Paris and in Vigo, the wide player affirmed himself in a way that not many of the speculative candidates for Real Madrid’s attacking roles do. While most would argue that Jese and in some cases, Cheryshev, are more talented heading for goal, Vazquez stands above when it comes to combining his defensive duties with those of the more expressive type. In other words, the type that Benitez likes.

It thus comes as a stroke of fortune that Benitez should be the man to take Madrid’s managerial reigns. His early reign at the Bernabeu has been characterised by its solidity and pragmatism, while it was well known beforehand that the 55-year-old craves the order of his team as much as any other redeeming attribute.

Vazquez has given him exactly that, at a time when he needed it the most. The fact that he played with such reliability in two games of paramount importance – just days apart – is likely to have done wonders in the eyes of his manager, who must also feel a sense of satisfaction given that it was he who sought to bring Vazquez back to the capital.

In the all-consuming world of being the manager of Real Madrid, adding feathers to your cap along the way tends to be critical in terms of one’s longevity. If Benitez can lay claim to overseeing the transformation of a ‘canterano’ into a respectable first team player at the Bernabeu, it will not go unnoted; especially at a time where homegrown products are becoming increasingly scarce in los Blancos’ plans.

The benefit for Vazquez, of course, is a more assertive place in Madrid’s star-studded squad. He has the trust of his manager and an individual style that Benitez is fond of. “I don’t like to talk much about a player individually, but if Lucas is playing ahead of others it’s because he’s earned it,” his selector recently said; underlining his endearment to the 24-year-old.

Though Vazquez isn’t likely to ever nail down a firm place in Madrid’s starting eleven, when it comes to valuable squad players, few look to fit the bill better than he. And Benitez will be well aware of it now, if he wasn’t already.

About the author – Jamie Kemp

Jamie is a freelance sportswriter, who writes on English and Spanish varieties of football in the main. He is also the creator of the popular blog El Rondo; a spot where you can find regular musings on the world of La Liga.

twitter: @jamiekemp


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The style of play may not be to everyone’s taste, but Real Madrid deserve credit for their defensive record since Rafael Benitez took charge in the summer. Nolito’s fine strike in Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Celta Vigo on Saturday was only the third goal they have conceded in La Liga this term, the best record of any team in Europe’s five major divisions.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been in inspired form between the sticks – the Costa Rica international has recovered admirably from being lined up as a makeweight for Manchester United’s David de Gea in the summer transfer window – and the overall organisation of the team has been impressive, but defensive midfielder Casemiro deserves a huge amount of credit for his contributions to Madrid’s watertight rearguard in recent weeks.

Casemiro first moved to the Spanish capital in January 2013, signing for Real Madrid’s B side from Sao Paulo, the club he had joined 11 years previously as a 10-year-old boy. He made his senior debut for Los Blancos towards the end of his first campaign, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 defeat of Real Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu. 25 appearances in all competitions followed in 2013-14, before Casemiro spent the following season on loan at Porto.

With Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Mateo Kovacic also at the club, it was unclear how often Casemiro would be given a chance after returning to Madrid this term. He has, however, taken full advantage of his recent inclusion in the XI and Benitez’s commitment to squad rotation: having performed well against neighbours Atletico and Levante domestically and Malmo and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, the Brazilian was excellent again in the weekend’s top-of-the-table clash with Celta.

Madrid lined up in a rather conservative 4-3-3, with Jese and Lucas Vazquez routinely tracking back on the flanks so that the shape resembled more of a 4-1-4-1 out of possession. The man tasked with sitting in front of the back four was Casemiro, who did an unglamorous job with the minimum of fuss.

Within the first 90 seconds, the 23-year-old had already snapped into his first tackle of the afternoon. It was to prove a running theme: Casemiro broke up play expertly, making blocks, interceptions and tackles and then sensibly recycling the ball to one of his colleagues close by. As a result of his disciplined positioning – Casemiro rarely moved ahead of the line of the ball – Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were able to shuttle forward and join the attack without worrying about leaving huge swathes of space behind them.

Madrid, in truth, were rather fortunate to concede only once at Balaidos, with Celta missing some fabulous chances and Navas making a couple of wonderful stops.

Their approach in general, meanwhile, will only have served to divide supporters further: some will praise the team’s organisation, commitment and discipline against an outfit who have started the season magnificently, but many more will not be happy at seeing arguably the world’s biggest club cede possession and territory to such an extent.

That debate, however, should not preclude Casemiro’s showings from being recognised or appreciated, who has done brilliantly since coming into the team. The Brazilian may find himself on the bench again when the injuries subside, while the merits of deploying him as a midfield anchor decrease when it comes to home games that Madrid are expected to dominate, but he has certainly played his way into contention with his recent performances and could become a permanent fixture in the XI for tough away trips to places like Celta.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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It was a signing that caught many people by surprise. With Gareth Bale, Isco and James Rodriguez all already vying for the No. 10 role in Rafael Benitez’s favoured 4-2-3-1 setup, the addition of another attacking midfielder did not seem like an urgent requirement for Real Madrid. Indeed, almost as soon as Croatian playmaker Mateo Kovacic sealed his €32 million from Inter, predictions of stagnation on the substitutes’ bench were aired.

The 21-year-old, though, has been handed a chance to shine earlier than expected: with Bale and Rodriguez both absent through injury, Kovacic was included in Benitez’s starting XI for the first time against Athletic Club last Wednesday and then looked bright after coming on as a substitute in Saturday’s encounter with Malaga, even though Madrid dropped points with a disappointing goalless draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.

With Bale and Rodriguez expected to be back for Saturday’s derby with Atletico, Kovacic’s performances have given Benitez something of a selection headache; while the Wales international is still likely to get the nod given his previous form and status as a favourite of president Florentino Perez, Kovacic has certainly won over some of the doubters who questioned whether he was good enough to make an instant impact at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Against Athletic last Wednesday, Kovacic was deployed not as a No. 10 but as part of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 configuration when Madrid had the ball and as a central midfielder tasked with covering the left flank in a 4-4-2 when Benitez’s side were out of possession, with Cristiano Ronaldo moving up front alongside Karim Benzema.

The Croatian’s versatility will not be a surprise to those who watched him during his two-and-a-half-years in Italy: Kovacic played as a regista in front of the defence, as a central attacking playmaker and even out on the left, a position he was regularly used in at first club Dinamo Zagreb.

After giving the ball away twice early on, Kovacic soon settled into the game in the Basque country as Madrid took control. His passing was sharp and accurate, and his willingness to carry the ball forward helped Los Blancos to transition from defence to attack quickly.

Karim Benzema opened the scoring in the 19th minute after an error from Athletic defender Mikel San Jose, and Kovacic was unfortunate not to double Madrid’s lead just before the interval.

After driving forward with the ball at his feet, the 21-year-old picked out Benzema out wide and, continuing his run into the box, brilliantly controlled the return ball with his right foot before forcing a fine save from Gorka Iraizoz Moreno with his left.

Madrid had to dig in after the break, with Kovacic contributing to a resolute second-half showing as the visitors ground out a 2-1 victory.

Saturday’s encounter with Malaga was frustrating, with Madrid failing to beat a side who have still yet to score a single goal this season.

Kovacic began the game on the bench but was introduced in the 60th minute and immediately made an impact. Though Madrid could not find the breakthrough, Kovacic again impressed.

“He has a lot of quality and dynamism,” Benitez said of the former Inter string-puller last week. “I already knew him from Italian football and I know what he can give us.”

The imminent return of Bale and Rodriguez will make things more difficult for Kovacic, but the man once described as a “mixture of Kaka and Clarence Seedorf” by former Italy boss Giovanni Trapattoni has certainly made a positive early impression.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball



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