The clash between Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid was supposed to be the tie of the round. The young pretenders, flush with cash, were desperate to show the world they were ready to rule. What better way to do that than by knocking out the reigning European kings? But if this was the Game of Thrones, PSG once again demonstrated their inexperience as they were outplayed by the crafty veteran. You either win or die – or rather get knocked out.
Tuesday night wasn’t about PSG though. Zinedine Zidane knows all about working under pressure after a disastrous league campaign. The knifes were out for the Frenchman immediately following the draw. Zidane is under huge pressure to deliver in the Champions League after a poor domestic campaign. Picture Zidane as Morrie from Goodfellas with Florentino Perez as Jimmy. The decision was made: Morrie had to go. But a triumphant night in Paris sees Jimmy call off the hit, opting to give him another chance. For now.
Big games require big decisions
The one criticism you can’t aim at Zidane is his lack of cojones. When you back someone into a corner and make them fear for their future, they can either fight or give up. When Zidane’s lineup for the second leg in Paris became known it was was largely criticised. Where was Isco or Gareth Bale? How could he not use at least one of Luka Modric or Toni Kroos? Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio were the surprise starters instead. “This isn’t the time to gamble, Zizou!”
However the irony is that in picking Asensio and Lucas the choices were anything but gambles. Bale and Isco, for varying reasons, have yet to prove why they should be certain starters. Not just over the course of this season but over their entire Real Madrid careers. Their moments of brilliance are marred by inconsistencies. That’s where Lucas, above everyone else, stands out as the prime example of what Zidane wants from a player.
Lucas is someone any manager would love to have in their team. The current trend is to admire highlight reel players over those who run themselves into the ground. And we aren’t talking about headless-chicken type running, but intelligent pressing of the opposition. This Real Madrid side contains some of the biggest and best names in football but you need your fair share of Lucas’ too. The same goes for Casemiro, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo.
If you work hard enough, you’ll get your chance
The career path of Lucas is a testament to his own self-belief and honing his own skills. In an interview with Goal he said: “Everybody has to know how they play, expand on their virtues and help the team by working; running. When I’m on the pitch I always try and give 100% and help my teammates.” It’s these characteristics which sees the boy from Galicia become a cult hero in Madrid.
Starting out in the small town of Curtis, which has a mere 2,000 inhabitants, the route to glory wasn’t always so clear. Like many others, Lucas enjoyed playing football with his friends – and brother – and their success caught the attention of other, bigger communities. A successful indoor football side transitioned into a decent 11-a-side one. Ural saw potential and brought him to La Coruña.
It didn’t take long for Lucas to demonstrate his emerging talent there either. Real Madrid’s scouts returned with glowing reports about his potential and quickly added him to their expansive roster of young talents. But the idea of a move to Madrid going to his head couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the most redeeming features about Lucas is his unwavering humility.
Lucas doesn’t forget his roots
The British press appears to have an infatuation with young players and what they spend, or where they go on holiday. That isn’t quite as prominent in Spain, unless your name’s Cristiano or Messi, but Lucas’ home comforts wouldn’t cause a storm in England either. Every summer and Christmas the Real Madrid star returns to Curtis to a hero’s welcome.
Lucas doesn’t believe that being a superstar changes a great deal, at least not for him. As in every walk of life people can change depending on their circumstances. Some can choose to flash the cash, drive expensive cars and act like they’re more important than others. This is their right, after all. But for Lucas he only shares what he feels comfortable to in the public eye. Even his girlfriend is relatively unknown – despite every newspaper’s best intentions.
Take for example the way he proposed to his then-girlfriend, now-wife. There wasn’t an elaborate plan with hundreds of people on an expensive tropical island. He simply took her to the cinema, put various photos and videos of the couple together on the screen, and popped the question. No bells and whistles but authenticity and that’s what Lucas is about.
Just like Asensio, a year in Espanyol did wonders for Lucas
It isn’t easy to make the grade at Real Madrid as there are plenty of obstacles in your way. The starting 11 is usually full of superstars and youth prospects need to cut their teeth elsewhere. For Lucas, this was no different and his development stalled due a series of hamstring problems. Without a significant ally in the coaching staff or first team due to his inactivity, he accepted an initial loan move to Espanyol with a view to a permanent deal.
In a lesser team, with the greatest respect to Espanyol, it was easier for Lucas to stand out and show what he was capable of. Sergio García, Cristhian Stuani and Felipe Caicedon were the attacking trio who were banging in the goals but it was Vazquez who made the team tick. All this in his first season in Spain’s top division. Espanyol quickly made the deal official for €2m. It was a no-brainer.
Unfortunately for the Catalan club those performances didn’t go unnoticed by Real Madrid either. Less than a month after signing a long-term deal at Espanyol, Madrid swooped in to active their buy-back clause. A few detractors saw this as a move to increase the number of homegrown players in the squad believing Lucas didn’t have the quality to succeed at Madrid. I wonder what they’re thinking now.
Lucas hit the ground running
When life hands you a second chance, you need to grasp it with both hands. The idea he was merely making up the numbers was soon put to bed. In a matter of weeks he had convinced both Rafa Benitez and later Zidane that they could trust him in the side.
No greater proof of this than when Lucas stepped up to take the first penalty in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. How many players, in their first season at a big club, would step up to take the opening penalty of a shootout in the European Cup final?
After ousting James and Morata, who will be Lucas’ next victim?
This season is seeing Lucas add more goals to his game while continuing to provide plenty of assists. To be more precise, in his last six starts for Real Madrid he has two goals and six assists. This is why the decision to leave Bale on the bench wasn’t a surprise, nor was the Welshman ‘dropped’. The fact is Vazquez is performing better than Bale and offers more protection to Carvajal’s right-hand side.
It’ll be interesting to see how Zidane tweaks his lineup when Modric and Kroos approach full fitness. Lucas certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his place in the side but someone has to miss out. If Zidane resorts to type and picks the usual midfield three he could always push Lucas further forward and drop Benzema, leaving Cristiano at the lone striker. Either way, these are ‘good’ problems for Zidane to have.
Bale and Isco are the most likely to lose out if Lucas continues to perform at this level. So while the plaudits will go to Cristiano or Asensio, don’t forget about the guys behind them who are busting a gut to provide the goalscoring opportunities. Right now, Lucas is just as important as Cristiano to this Real Madrid side.
Hard work pays off.