Madrid - Zinedine Zidane pursued Paul Pogba but found Fede Valverde and his
emergence as Real Madrid's most important midfielder may yet prove the
turning point in their season.
Signed for €6 million in 2016, Valverde cost around €200
million less than Madrid might have paid for Pogba last summer. As well
as saving the club money, he might have saved their coach too.
Zidane, staring down the barrel in September, is flying high three
months later. Madrid sit level on points with Barcelona at the top of La
Liga and have secured qualification to the Champions League's last 16.
They face Espanyol at home on Saturday ahead of a dead European
rubber against Club Brugge, the kind of fixture Valverde would once have
viewed as a rare opportunity to play in the team.
Instead, the 21-year-old has become a key figure in Zidane's second
era and, between Karim Benzema up front and Sergio Ramos at the back,
the central cog in a newly-formed spine.
When Zidane talks about Valverde, he invariably darts to the English
description, "box-to-box", a phrase he clearly feels best suits the
energy and dynamism the Uruguayan from Montevideo has brought to
Madrid's midfield three.
For years, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos had been the immoveable duo
ahead of the more defensively-minded Casemiro, but their ponderous
performances came to characterise a Madrid side that lacked spark and,
perhaps, the motivation to go again.
Valverde has broken the partnership and added what was missing. His
zip, athleticism and direct running offer Madrid the base from which
they have been again able to dominate matches.
"He is amazing," Kroos said last month. "I really love this player.
To come here is not easy and to play like he is at this age means he has
a lot of quality. I'm sure he has a great future here for many years to
After the draw against Paris Saint-Germain last month, Zidane
dismissed one journalist's suggestion that Valverde's substitution had
led Madrid to concede two late goals in two minutes.
"He is improving like everyone else and he is doing well," said
Zidane, who had replaced Valverde in the 76th minute, before PSG scored
in the 81st and 83rd. "But it's difficult to play box-to-box for a whole
Valverde missed the 3-0 defeat to PSG in September through injury. It
was Madrid's worst display of the season. Against Real Mallorca,
Madrid's only other defeat, Valverde started on the bench.
Zidane did not discover Valverde but, whether through luck or design,
has overseen the period during which a promising youngster has turned
into a first-team regular.
Turbulent yearHe was schooled at Uruguay's
Penarol, a club he joined as a 13-year-old and where his sturdy frame
above a pair of long, thin, legs earned the nickname El Pararito, "the
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