Raphael Varane mistakes shouldn’t taint an exceptional season

Renowned for being a calm and composed presence at the back, it came as something of a shock to the system to see Raphael Varane make two catastrophic errors that led to Real Madrid’s exit from the Champions League on Friday night, with Manchester City moving past the Spanish giants and into the competition’s quarter finals.

Without Sergio Ramos alongside him, Varane looked lost, but he shouldn’t have. This certainly wasn’t the first time the Frenchman had played alongside Eder Militao at the back, but the lack of familiarity between the two defenders was brutally exposed by Manchester City’s high-pressing game. Varane in particular just couldn’t cope with it, although Militao was uncomfortable at times too.

The two mistakes made by Varane, one in either half, were extremely out of character for a player who has become renowned for his steady hand. They also came at the end of an exceptional season for the 27-year-old. Indeed, in terms of the standard of his performances, the 2019/20 season might well have been the best of Varane’s career.

Ramos is still the dominant influence in defence for Real Madrid, but this was the season during which Varane began to match him in this regard. Varane has been a solid presence at the back for Los Blancos for a number of years, boasting elite level experience well beyond his years, but this season saw him reach new heights.

That his campaign ended in the way it did at the Etihad Stadium on Friday night was an anomaly and not a reflection of his form or the player. Zidane must take a share of the blame for not setting up his team adequately to resist the high press he surely knew his players were bound to face away to Manchester City.

Varane truly is one of the best central defenders operating at the top of the European game today. He has won it all, from La Liga to the Champions League to the World Cup, and is still only 27. The Frenchman won’t be shaken from that standing easily. His mistakes against Manchester City might have been costly, ultimately sending Real Madrid out of the Champions League, but they won’t define him. Varane has achieved too much this season, and over the course of his career to date, for that to be the case.

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Could latest Gareth Bale episode finally force his exit from Real Madrid?

It was hardly a surprise when Gareth Bale was left out of Real Madrid’s matchday squad to face Manchester City in this week’s Champions League last 16 second leg at the Etihad Stadium. After all, the Welsh winger has been something of a peripheral figure for the Spanish side this season, only making a handful of starts over the 2019/20 campaign.

What was surprising, though, was the reason Zinedine Zidane gave for Bale’s absence in Manchester. “It was a personal conversation I had with him. He preferred not to play,” the Frenchman responded when asked why the 31-year-old hadn’t travelled with the rest of the squad for the crunch match. “The rest remains between me and him but he said he didn’t want to play.”

The true nature of the conversation between Bale and Zidane is not known, but it doesn’t reflect well on the former that he has decided against even travelling to one of his team’s most important games of the season so far. Bale has earned some sympathy of late for the situation he finds himself in in the Spanish capital, but this episode might see him lose some of his defenders.

Until now, the relationship between Bale and Real Madrid had cooled. While the two parties have been tethered together through inconvenience for years, there was an acceptance on both sides that nothing was about to change. The most recent noises out of the Bale camp are that he will see out the rest of his contract at the Santiago Bernabeu while Real Madrid have seemingly run out of ways to get the player out of the club.

The in-fighting had stopped, but this latest episode has the potential to stoke tensions once more. Last summer, Real Madrid came close to moving Bale on to the Chinese Super League only for them to demand a transfer fee at the last moment. It’s a stance they have kept ever since, but if they feel Bale is becoming a toxic influence, rather than just a passive one, in the dressing room it’s possible they could change that stance and forego any fee.

It’s a shame for all concerned that Bale and Real Madrid have ended up in this situation. Until this week, it appeared set to continue until the summer of 2022, when Bale’s contract in the Spanish capital will expire. But what has now happened has the potential to shift the landscape.

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Is Atletico Madrid still the best place for Thomas Partey?

He has been the subject of much transfer speculation of late and it’s not hard to see why Thomas Partey might have his suitors. While Atletico Madrid have endured a difficult 2019/20 campaign, only making a late surge to a third place finish in La Liga to save their season, the Ghanian midfielder has impressed.

Indeed, Thomas has become a key figure at the Wanda Metropolitano, outshining the likes of Koke and Saul Niguez in the Atletico Madrid midfield. Now, the 27-year-old is facing a career crossroads, with a number of Premier League clubs reportedly keen to sign him over the summer transfer window.

The £45 million release clause in Thomas’ current contract is a big reason why he has become so attractive to potential suitors, but even without that price tag it’s likely there would have been interest in the player this summer. The 27-year-old is the ultimate modern midfield anchor, providing great energy and drive through the centre of the pitch.

Thomas is tenacious and strong in the tackle, but is exceptional with the ball at his feet, both as a dribbler and a passer. He would be the perfect addition for a team like Arsenal, and indeed the North London club are widely believed to be leading the pursuit of the Atletico Madrid midfielder. Mikel Arteta has reportedly made the signing of Thomas this summer a priority as he looks to overhaul his squad at the Emirates Stadium.

There is, however, also talk that Thomas could sign a new contract with Atletico Madrid. Latest reports claim the Ghanaian is still in discussions with the Spanish capital club over a new deal that would eliminate the £45 million release that is currently making him so attractive to Arsenal and other Premier League clubs looking for a relative bargain.

At the Wanda Metropolitano, Diego Simeone plays to Thomas’ strengths. He uses the Ghanian to channel attacking moves through the centre of the pitch. There’s no guarantee that Arteta would have as much faith in Thomas, although the Spaniard appears to be a fan. Thomas could become a giant at Atletico Madrid, with the second half of the 2019/20 season suggesting they are heading in the right direction again. Thomas could still be a significant part of this as they move into a new era.

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What next for Luka Jovic at Real Madrid?

His signing was seen by many as a sign that Karim Benzema would be phased out of the Real Madrid starting lineup this season, but Luka Jovic hasn’t come close to having that sort of impact since arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu last summer. Benzema certainly hasn’t been phased out of the lineup.

In fact, the French striker has never been as important a figure as he is now, finishing as Real Madrid’s top scorer for the 2019/20 season. Jovic, on the other hand, started just four La Liga matches, scoring only twice. The Serbian centre forward was a peripheral figure for the majority of the title-winning campaign.

This has led to speculation that Jovic could leave the Santiago Bernabeu this summer having failed to make an impression in the Spanish capital. Big money signings aren’t often given much time to prove themselves at Real Madrid and Jovic want be kept around until he feels comfortable. Just ask Alvaro Morata.

A switch to the Premier League has been mooted, with Arsenal, Everton and Wolves all mentioned as potential destinations for Jovic. He has become a victim of circumstance at Real Madrid and still has remarkable potential. The Serbian just needs the right club and the right environment to thrive.

At Eintracht Frankfurt last season, Jovic flourished in a front two. At Real Madrid, he has been asked to lead the line on his own or fit into a 4-3-3 formation. Those are roles that don’t suit him. This is why a move to somewhere like Wolves, where he could feasibly play alongside Diogo Jota as a replacement for Raul Jimenez, might appeal Jovic. He could also play alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin up front for Everton.

“The feelings are good, despite the absences,” Zinedine Zidane insisted when asked to provide an update on Jovic’s status at Real Madrid earlier this year. “There’s a very big squad, and the rest are here to respond. Jovic is an obvious option. He is the future. He has to be calm. He is learning. He’s a boy who wants to learn a lot. He’s very good. He’ll get a lot of goals. We’ve backed him, and you have to be calm with him.”

For how much longer will they continue to back him, though? And even if they do, would Jovic be better off elsewhere? It appears the Serbian is already nearing a crossroads in his Real Madrid career.

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What will this summer hold for Real Madrid?

There was no stopping Real Madrid after the resumption of the Spanish football season. Indeed, Zinedine Zidane’s side won 10 straight games following lockdown to take control of the title race at the top of La Liga. Los Blancos head into the summer as Spanish champions for only the second time in the last eight years.

But for all the success Real Madrid have enjoyed this season in wrestling back the Spanish title from Barcelona, this is a group of players that still finds itself in the midst of a generational transition. The likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and even Sergio Ramos will have to be phased out of the Real Madrid starting lineup over the next few years and so there is no time for Los Blancos to rest on their laurels.

However, there is a suggestion that the Santiagio Bernabeu club won’t have much money to spend this summer. The coronavirus pandemic has hit most clubs across Europe, but the noises out of Real Madrid are that they have been hit harder than most. Spanish football in general seems to have been hit harder than most.

Reports claim Real Madrid will have to sell players before they can buy anyone this summer. There is fortunately, for their sake, a lot of deadwood for them to shift. James Rodriguez, for instance, is now seen as surplus to requirements at the Santiago Bernabeu. The Colombian has struggled for game time this season and has been linked with a move to the Premier League.

Mariano Diaz is another who could be moved on, with the striker barely featuring for Real Madrid this season. Then there’s Gareth Bale, the Welsh winger who become something of a sideshow with his antics in the stands as Los Blancos marched their way to the Spanish title. If Real Madrid could find a buyer for Bale, significant funds could be freed up for new signings.

But selling these players in this depressed transfer market is going to be tough. Clubs are being more creative in the way they are strengthening this summer and so this might make it more difficult to sell their players in orthodox transfer deals. They might have to enter the loans and free agents market like everyone else if they want to reinforce their squad ahead of next season.

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Just how good is Martin Odegaard?

He provided, no matter which way you look at it, one of the defining storylines of the 2019/20 season in Spain. Written off as a teenager and a wonderkid who failed to fulfil his potential, Martin Odegaard showed why so many were wrong about him by loaning Real Sociedad on loan this season and marking himself out as one of the best players in La Liga.

Indeed, Odegaard is finally flourishing. The Norwegian is still only 21 years old, but he made the move to Real Madrid at such a young age (16) that this season felt like something of a career renaissance. In hindsight, the pressure that was placed on a player, and a person, so young was ridiculous. Odegaard deserved time to mature at his own rate, and that is now what he has done.

Odegaard’s sensational performances for Real Sociedad this season have led to speculation that his two-season loan at the Anoeta could be cut short this summer after just one season. The Norwegian has proven himself on loan and now his parent club could recall him in order to integrate him into their new look midfield for the start of the 2020/21 campaign.

Recent reports state that Real Madrid will take a decision on Odegaard’s future after the Champions League has finished, with Los Blancos 2-1 down from their last 16 first leg against Manchester City. They have some work to do to turn the tie around and make the quarter finals.

The noises out of the Santiago Bernabeu are that Real Madrid will have to sell players before they can make moves in the transfer market this summer. That might prove quite challenging given the financial landscape across the European game at this moment and so Florentino Perez might not have much money to throw around.

Perez always recognises the importance of hype and growing excitement among the Real Madrid support and so he could recall Odegaard to do this. The Norwegian has been on the books at the Santiago Bernabeu for the last five years, but the fans haven’t yet been given a real look at him. Real Madrid could, in a way, present him as something of a new signing this summer. It might be time for Odegaard to finally prove why Los Blancos kept him around and why he should be a big part of the club’s future.

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Julen Lopetegui and Monchi have turned Sevilla around

Julen Lopetegui and Monchi both had something to prove when they arrived at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan last summer. The former had, after all, suffered a torturous time at Real Madrid the season before, which came just a few months after his sacking as Spain national team manager on the eve of the 2018 World Cup.

Monchi’s reputation had also taken a hit at Roma. Credited with turning Sevilla into a European force, the sporting director took on a new challenge at the Stadio Olimpico. However, after enjoying some initial success in Italy, with Roma making a run to the semi finals of the Champions League, Monchi struggled to make his mark.

The 51-year-old looks comfortable again in the surroundings of the Ramon Sanchez Pzjuan, though. Monchi set about pointing Sevilla in the right direction again upon his return to the club last summer and his efforts bore fruit almost immediately, with the Andalusians enjoying a successful 2019/20 campaign.

Lopetegui also deserves a lot of credit for how Sevilla finished in La Liga’s top four, qualifying for next season’s Champions League. The former Real Madrid and Spain boss has proved himself as a coach by turning Sevilla into one of the most dynamic, exhilarating teams in the country. They were well worth their fourth place finish.

Lucas Ocampos enjoyed an exceptional season, with Diego Carlos growing into one of the best centre backs in the league. Ever Banega was more influential than ever before, while Sergio Reguilon underlined his potential as one of the best full backs in the Spanish game at the moment on loan from Real Madrid for the season.

There are still areas where Lopetegui could do with improving. Up front, most notably, Sevilla struggled to find a regular goalscorer to lead the line. Ocampos finished the season as the club’s top scorer with 14. Behind him, Luuk de Jong was their second top scorer with just six goals for the 2019/20 camapign.

Monchi failed to find a centre forward to effectively replace Wissam Ben Yedder last summer. This was one of the few things which held Sevilla back from achieving even more. Finding a true goalscorer will surely be high on the sporting director’s list of priorities this summer and if he can do that Sevilla will stand a strong chance of taking the next step in their development next season.

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Will Takefusa Kubo be back at Real Madrid next season?

Real Madrid know how to work the loan market better than any other club in Europe. This season saw Los Blancos send a number of young players out on loan to gain first team experience, continuing a trend that has seen the Santiago Bernabeu outfit replenish their squad every summer over a number of years.

Martin Odegaard joined Real Sociedad on a two-season loan last summer, with the Norwegian midfielder enjoying a hugely successful campaign. Odegaard was one of the best players in La Liga over the 2019/20 campaign, impressing to such an extent that many predict Real Madrid will cut short his original loan agreement to recall him to the Spanish capital next season.

Indeed, the 21-year-old looks to be the natural heir to Luka Modric and with the Croatian out of contract next summer the transition between the two could happen sooner rather than later. Odegaard very much looks destined to become the beating heart of Real Madrid’s midfield at some point in the near future.

Then there’s Achraf Hakimi, the Moroccan full back who was loaned out to Borussia Dortmund for two seasons in the summer of 2018. In the Bundesliga, the young full back thrived, leading to Inter paying €40 million for him earlier this month. Some believe Zinedine Zidane should have found a place for Hakimi in his Real Madrid squad, but the club still turned a profit from their decision to sell him on.

So what does the future hold for Takefusa Kubo, the Japanese youngster who has spent the season on loan at Real Mallorca? Previously on the books of Barcelona, Kubo has caught the eye recently, leading to a discussion over how Zidane will ultimately integrate him into the squad at the Santiago Bernabeu.

It seems likely the 19-year-old will be loaned out again next season, but the standard of his performances for Real Mallorca suggest he would take a return to his parent club for the 2020/21 campaign in his stride. This is a player with incredible potential, seemingly destined to reach the top of the sport at some point in the future.

Of course, the argument could be made that Kubo would be better off playing for a team where he would be guaranteed first team football. Competition is stiff at Real Madrid for attacking places at this moment. But the best players thrive in the toughest environments.

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Will Real Madrid be able to shed their deadweight this summer?

Zinedine Zidane knows how to get the most out of a squad. The Frenchman returned to the Santiago Bernabeu last year and was handed a Real Madrid team lacking in identity, direction and confidence and in just over 12 months he turned them into Spanish champions. Zidane proved his worth as a coach and a manager this season.

Indeed, by revitalising the likes of Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos, Zidane was able to squeeze more out of a squad most had assumed was past its expiry date. Of course, a generational transition will still need to happen at Real Madrid, but for the time being their current team is delivering.

And yet there is still some deadwood weighing them down. With the summer transfer window set to open soon, it’s highly likely Real Madrid will have to move on some players before they can buy anyone. It could be a frustrating window for Los Blancos if they are unable to find buyers for players they don’t need.

James Rodriguez is almost certain to leave the Santiago Bernabeu this summer. The Colombian was recalled by Zidane last summer having failed to earn a permanent move to Bayern Munich after a loan spell there, suggesting that he would be used by Real Madrid. Barring a few sporadic appearances, though, James has been a peripheral figure.

A move to the Premier League has been mooted, with Arsenal and Manchester United among those interested, but offloading James in this economic climate might prove difficult. Dani Ceballos is another whose future at the Santiago Bernabeu is far from certain. The midfielder has impressed at times on loan at Arsenal this season, but is expected to return to his parent club once that loan agreement has expired.

Then there’s Mariano Diaz and Brahim Diaz, both of whom have played a bit part role for Real Madrid this season. But Real Madrid’s biggest chunk of deadwood is undoubtedly Gareth Bale. The Welshman is still the club’s highest paid player, but has barely featured for Los Blancos since the restart of the season.

Real Madrid tried to move Bale on last summer, with the winger coming close to a switch to a Chinese Super League, but there is no suggestion that he will leave the club in this window. That means a significant chunk of cash remains tied up at the Santiago Bernabeu, making it much tougher for Real Madrid to get anyone in this summer.

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Real Madrid must build on La Liga title triumph

The scenes at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano last week were certainly unique, with Real Madrid celebrating their 2019/20 Spanish title in front of empty stands at their training ground rather than in front of frenzied supporters at the Santiago Bernabeu. They were made even more unique because this was only the second time in the last eight years that Los Blancos had won La Liga.

Such a lack of domestic success had become a source of great embarrassment to Real Madrid. This is, after all, a club which prides itself on being Spain’s biggest and best club. That the last generation of Spanish football has been dominated by Lionel Messi and Barcelona, at least domestically, grated on club president Florentino Perez in particular.

There can be no denying that Real Madrid were the best team in Spain this season. Barcelona were severely flawed throughout, opening the door for Los Blancos to walk through on their way to title glory, but Zinedine Zidane’s side also deserve credit for the way they put their foot down after the restart, winning 10 games in a row to get their hands on the trophy.

Zidane and his players mustn’t rest on their laurels, though. Real Madrid must build on this season’s La Liga title triumph to dominate the Spanish game in the same way Barcelona have for the last decade or so. They must use this as a platform to achieve even bigger and better things.

While Barcelona have lost their way, both on and off the pitch, there is enough evident to suggest Real Madrid are well placed to repeat their title triumph going forward. Their recent transfer business has been solid, with Eden Hazard the perfect partner for Karim Benzema and Ferland Mendy the natural successor to Marcelo.

In Reinier Jesus, Rodrugo, Fede Valverde and Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid boast a core of young players who should carry the club into a new era. Unlike at Barcelona, there appears to be a succession plan at the Santiago Bernabeu to account for many of their ageing stars. While Barca have suffered a drop-off following the exit of players like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, Real Madrid might avoid that and build on what they have achieved this season. This could be the start of their time in the Spanish game.

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