Marcelo's importance to the Real Madrid machine cannot be underestimated | Sid Lowe

Sid Lowe
Marcelo Vieira celebrates after scoring during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Valencia at Santiago Bernabéu. Photograph: Pedro Castillo/Real Madrid via Getty Images

For the second time in six days, the final whistle brought Marcelo Vieira to his knees, but this time his body didn’t slump forward face first, fists beating the floor; this time his body arched back and his arms were raised to the sky, like the poster from Platoon. After the clasico late last Sunday night, Real Madrid’s left-back took responsibility for how it had ended; after their match with Valencia early on Saturday evening, he didn’t – even though this time it actually was his doing. “We all fought, we all ran,” he said, wide-eyed and wiping sweat from his head, the shouting and celebrating surrounding him at the Santiago Bernabéu yet to subside.

Ran? He had run wild. Marcelo took the blame for losing to Barcelona, sadly admitting he should have fouled Sergi Roberto just as Cristiano Ronaldo had implored, as if it that was quite so easy or quite so obvious. Now, a week on, he rescued them. With eight minutes left, former Madrid youth teamer Dani Parejo curled the perfect free-kick over a tall, leaping wall and into the top corner to put Valencia level. The game had been drifting, Zinedine Zidane admitting to “anxiety”, but Madrid had led. Now, lead gone, they risked the league doing likewise. With four games to go, three for Barcelona, Madrid would probably have to beat Granada, Sevilla, Celta and Málaga or wait even longer for a title that had already evaded them for five years.

Then, with four minutes left, the ball dropped to Marcelo on the top corner of the area. He could have just hit it or swung another cross into the box, but that’s not really his way. So, dropping his shoulder he turned inside on his left foot, past two challenges, and bent it right-footed into the far corner. 2-1. On the touchline Zidane watched it unfold without moving, just his jaw clenching, but everyone else exploded. Marcelo sprinted towards Sergio Ramos, arms flailing, screaming, out of control, part Tardelli part Tarzan, and leapt into him. Danilo raced from the bench. Lucas Vázquez zoomed along the touchline and onto the pitch. Álvaro Morata held onto him, not about to let go. Players piled in, delirious.

You’d think they had just won the title, which perhaps they had. It felt that way. This was the goal that was worth “half a league” the reports ran. And while they would have already won six or seven leagues by now if every game that was declared half a league really was half a league, they had a point. Madrid had done it again, their way. Zidane talked about the pressure as the season reached the end, about legs “trembling”, but this looked like those other times too, a familiar tale with a familiar finale: the story of the season. They didn’t really impress until they had really, really had to. Nothing makes them more productive than the last minute.

Valencia hit the post inside a minute, then Fabián Orellana had missed a wonderful chance. Madrid had taken the lead – Dani Carvajal’s cross, Ronaldo’s header – and when the chance came to make it safe in the second half, Karim Benzema hit the post and, from the same move, Madrid got a penalty from which Diego Alves did what Diego Alves does, making another penalty save and breaking another record: that’s three saves from the four he has faced from Ronaldo now; more saved in a single season than anyone, ever; and a higher total than any goalkeeper in the history of La Liga. Fewer than 50% of the penalties he’s faced here have gone in. And so it went on. It was still only 1-0 and still was on edge, yet it lacked real edginess, even when Rodrigo headed wide. But then Casemiro, already on a yellow, conceded a free kick and Parejo scored, as if it had been perfectly planned.

Not quite perfectly. Sometimes it’s tempting to conclude that for most teams the best way to get a point from the Bernabéu is to trail by a solitary goal, let the game meander into the final minutes, and then score. Just one thing: make sure you score late enough that there’s no time for them to react, because they will.

Valencia didn’t.

“I don’t know how to explain the late goals,” Zidane said, “but it’s exciting.” Madrid have scored over 20% of their goals in the last ten minutes this season, more than anyone else, and that’s not padded out by the third or fourth in a load of easy wins. Against Barcelona at the Camp Nou Ramos scored in the last minute; the following week, he did it again against Deportivo, making it 3-2 in the 92nd minute after Mariano Díaz had equalised in the 84th; against Villarreal they trailed 2-0 and came back to win 3-2, Morata scoring the winner in the 85th; Las Palmas were leading 3-1 with four minutes to go and Ronaldo scored twice; and against Sporting a fortnight ago, it was 2-2 when Isco scored in the last minute. And now this. “The Tightrope Kings,” AS’s cover called them.

Other teams do it too, of course, and it hasn’t always gone their way. Sergio Araujo scored in the 85th minute when they drew 2-2 in Las Palmas; Sevilla scored in the 85th and 90th to beat them 2- 1; Antoine Griezmann scored with five minutes left in the derby; and last week Leo Messi did that. But, still: fourteen times this season Madrid have gained points from losing or drawing positions (not including 0-0) and although not all of those have been late, this was the seventh time they’ve won a game with a goal after the 81st minute, while they have claimed two draws from losing positions in that period as well. Which might not sound like a huge amount but that’s nine times it’s happened – a quarter of a season. They’ve won 17 points from the 81st minute on – 21% of their points – going back to week two with Toni Kroos against Celta and passing through Morata, Mariano and Ramos, Morata again, Cristiano with two, Ramos again, Isco, and now Marcelo.

“Another miracle” ran the headline in El Mundo Deportivo.

“We had to show who we are; we had to reach for our soul,” Marcelo said.

His soul has always been this. Marcelo loves playing football, and that’s something often been held against him. Just not this time. He grew up playing on Botafogo beach and fútbol sala, indoor five-a-side, all speed, touch and skill, was his thing, even after his grandfather Pedro started taking him to training in his VW Beetle, before he sold it and they went by bus instead. In one post-game interview recently, Marcelo appeared with his seven-year-old son, Enzo. “I always want to play, every night before bed,” Enzo said. “I like to play up front and score lots of goals.” His dad would recognise himself in that. After he joined Real Madrid, he still played in the afternoon with mates and his cousin, a fútbol sala player. It’s supposed to be fun, after all – only this is a serious business and fun is suspicious, somehow. Don’t smile, don’t laugh, and don’t you dare enjoy this.

But here’s the thing: that’s bollocks. Defenders who attack stand accused in a way that defenders who don’t never are. The talented are held to task where the limited are let off, as if the talent itself is the problem, a solitary flaw elevated above an hour and a half of football. As if committing fouls is the most important thing a player can learn, and not passing or dribbling of scoring. Or, y’know, playing. Risks are rejected, a heinous crime, and every goal is analysed as if inspiration doesn’t exist, as if the ball cannot and should not ever go in and as if only one end of the pitch exists, as if it can all be easily broken up and compartmentalised, each area existing in a vacuum from the game itself. Yet not taking risks can be the riskiest thing of all; and sometimes, like on Saturday afternoon, it is necessary.

Marcelo left the Santiago Bernabéu wearing a T-shirt with Tony Montana on the front, played by Al Pacino, and the line from Scarface scrawled alongside: “Who Do I Trust? Me.” He once recalled that his grandfather had believed in him so much as to sell the Beetle to put his money into Marcelo’s career, but others haven’t always believed.

They do now. It is ten years ago now that he joined Real Madrid. Monchi always regretted it. With the help of an investment fund, Sevilla’s sporting director had a deal lined up to take him to the Sánchez Pizjuán but Madrid nipped in. He was raw, skinny too, but there was something there. Marcelo admitted: “I go, I go, I go and sometimes I forget to come back”, however much Gabriel Heinze and Fabio Cannavaro shouted at him – and, boy, did they shout at him. Madrid wanted to loan him to Valladolid, or sell him on with a buy-back clause, but he refused. He stayed. He played, too.

There were always some concerns, a little resistance, even at a club where Roberto Carlos had played – and if anyone had exploded the traditional view of a full-back it was him. As one coach put it, Roberto Carlos was the player who “arrives in his own area to find out what just happened”, but they had come to love him for it. There was a touch of that with Marcelo: at times, he was caught; at times, he was caught often. The space behind him became something to exploit, a clear weakness. For Madrid, it became something to worry about. Fabio Coentrao came, and not as back up. José Mourinho preferred Coentrao and so, at a key moment, did Carlo Ancelotti. Marcelo was left out of the European Cup final in Lisbon, which hurt, but he came on to help change the game. As Ancelotti’s assistant Paul Clement explained, the decision was natural: put simply, they thought Coentrao was clearly better that season.

By the following year, Clement admitted, every bit as matter-of-fact, they thought Marcelo was. Over time, people were won over, even if the doubts didn’t always go away. No one would have had Roberto Carlos any other way and although there is not the same unanimity with Marcelo, he has started be accepted as he is – quite apart from his own improvement and the fact that he was more serious about the sport than some thought. Anarchy can be a good thing on the pitch, they accept. Against Barcelona, he took the blame, a game like that reduced to a moment when he didn’t commit a foul. Six days later, he rescued his side, the game crystallised in a moment that defined him every bit as well. This is the way he is and Zidane wants him this way: “In modern football, the full backs have to make a difference,” he says.

In part, it is a choice, and all choices come with risks; there is a downside to everything, even if it only seems to be seen with offensive players. The pros though far outweigh the cons. In a team where the attackers tend to turn inside, where it can be predictable, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal do make the difference, as Zidane wants – no defenders in Spain have been involved in more goals. This season, they have been vital, a lifeline. When the B Team versus A Team debate comes up, only they are entirely without question. Their absences hurt more than most at a club that has assimilated injuries with remarkable ease and might even be better off with them.

Marcelo is different to most full-backs, even most attacking ones. While they tend to go outside and cross, he is as likely to take a diagonal line to the top corner of the area. It goes through people, not just round them. It’s less a ball in the box, more a pass in there. It’s not so much about pace and power as technique. Remember the run against Bayern? Jorge Valdano talks about him making “flowers” spring up. “He is more talented than me,” Roberto Carlos says. After the game, Carvajal revealed that team-mates ran to Marcelo, exclaiming: “how good are you?” He’d been good from left back. And left midfield. And left wing. And inside left. A full-back? No, a footballer. And amidst all that talent, there really is a case to be made to declare him Madrid’s best player this season.

It is his tenth at the club, and no one lasts this long without something. He’s still only 28, but it feels like he has been around for ever and yet it never really felt like he would be. Season after season, though, there he was. He arrived at the Bernabéu a 19-year-old. A decade on, on Saturday evening he departed having scored the late goal that took Madrid a step closer to a first title in five years and him to his 212th victory for the club – more than any other foreigner ever.

Talking points

• It was a beautiful pass, delivered with the outside of the foot from near the halfway line, out on the right, wonderfully weighted, curling thirty, forty yards between the central defenders and perfectly into the path of the centre-forward, bearing down on goal. It was just a pity for José Manuel Jurado that he plays for Espanyol and the centre forward he gave it to plays for Barcelona, an inexplicably impeccable assist allowing Luis Suárez to open the scoring in a Catalan derby that had been complicated until then. Espanyol were dreaming of another Tamudazo, the fuck of the century: the chance to take the title from rivals Barcelona. Instead, they had given them the lead. And for all that it can be tense, difficult too, sometimes downright dirty, for all that there were some unpleasant chants again, it does tend to end up this way. “I like coming here,” Gerard Piqué said. Of the last 18 meetings between them in the league, Barcelona have won 15 and lost none. That assist helped add to the statistic, Quique Sánchez Flores lamenting: “That changed everything.” After a sluggish first half, Barcelona took a step up in the second, Neymar running, Messi playing, Suárez scoring. Piqué and Sergio Busquets stood out too. Ivan Rakitic rolled in a second and in the last minute the Uruguayan got the third, thanks to another blunder, celebrating with a gymnastic pose, standing on one leg. It had been announced as the “derby of the league”, both the Catalan dailies running with the same headline yet again, and while Madrid’s late win meant that it remains in their hands, victory at Cornellà-El Prat kept Barcelona top.

Luis Suárez celebrates scoring the opening goal against Espanyol, viewed as ‘the derby of the league’ by both Catalan dailies. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

• “It’s a very sad day; time to cry but also time to build,” Tony Adams said. It was also a day that they knew would come. Granada are down after a 2-1 defeat at Real Sociedad. “When the owner bought the club he didn’t imagine this; he let himself be guided by the wrong people,” Adams added. He’s not wrong either.

• Sporting Gijón aren’t, not yet, but they know that they’re in trouble. They were beaten by Villarreal on Friday night and although Leganés’s defeat at Eibar means that it is not done, they trail by six points and need at least two wins from their final three games – when they have only got one in their last 12. That’s good news for Leganés, but they know that they’re not quite there yet. “We’re Leganés, we’ve only just come up; we would love to be safe with weeks to spare but we know we’re going to have to fight until the end,” said Asier Garitano.

• There was a cheer when Alavés scored their fourth goal against Betis - from the Betis fans, who have had enough. “Disastrous,” Joaquín Sánchez called it.

• Atlético were three up after eighteen minutes in the Canaries, as Las Palmas’s decomposition continues, the collapse which was always coming now complete. President and manager had long had very different opinions, players were signed in the winter window that they didn’t really need and that, as suspected, only made things worse, talks over the manager’s renewal inevitably broke down and the team soon followed. “It’s incredible to have seen this team before and to see it now,” Quique Setien said. There’s no glory in their games any more.

• Antoine Griezmann had a chance when he saw Michel Macedo down, so he kicked the ball out instead. Las Palmas’s fans applauded him and everyone said what a nice thing it was to do. Which it was. But may it never happen again. Much better to celebrate the referee who booked Alen Halilovic and Jesé for two pretty pathetic dives in the penalty area.

• And yes, El Mundo Deportivo really did complain that, in their live feed of the game at the Bernabéu, the league put five more “o’s” in the word “Gol” after Madrid scored than they had when Valencia scored. And, yes, Super Deporte really did pick up on the story, describing it as “shameful”.

• Welcome back, Levante!

Results: Villarreal 3-1 Sporting, Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada, Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia, Las Palmas 5-1 Atlético, Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona, Osasuna 2-2 Deportivo, Betis 1-4 Alavés, Eibar 2-0 Leganés, Celta 0-3 Athletic Tonight: Málaga-Sevilla

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