Friday, 17 May 2019

Who is Real Madrid's Player of the Season?

Real Madrid's season has been nothing short of a disaster.

So excruciatingly painful has it been that even coach Zinedine Zidane admitted in April that he could not wait for it to end.

Of course, that the Frenchman is even back at the helm says it all.

He stepped down last summer but was persuaded to return by club president Florentino Perez in March following the dismissal of Santiago Solari, who had been hired to succeed Zidane's replacement, Julen Lopetegui.

Solari, at least, managed to retain the Club World Cup but that was to be as good as it got for the Argentine, as Real's season quickly capitulated in the spring, during arguably the most humiliating week in the club's history.

Madrid saw both their Copa del Rey and Liga hopes dashed by back-to-back defeats by bitter rivals Barcelona at the Bernabeu before then suffering an embarrassing 4-1 home loss to Ajax that ended their run of three consecutive Champions League victories.

Thoughts have already turned to what promises to be a busy summer of comings and goings in the Spanish capital but, as Real prepare for their final game of the season, against Betis on Saturday, it is only right to pay tribute to the few shining lights of an otherwise dark season for Madrid.

First things first: Solari's treatment of Marcelo, formerly the best left-back in the world, was utterly bizarre. Quite why he felt compelled to relegate the Brazilian to the bench is anyone's guess.

However, what we can say is that Sergio Reguilon deserves credit for the way in which he coped with being unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight.

Indeed, while the 22-year-old academy product could hardly be considered the archetypal modern full-back, he proved himself a competent defender and also provided a decent outlet down the left flank, even chipping in with a couple of assists in La Liga.

Reguilon may not have done enough to convince Zidane that he should be a starter next season but he showed grit, enthusiasm and, most importantly of all, surpassed expectations this term, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of his team-mates.

He even upset club captain Sergio Ramos during a training session, which, in itself, is probably enough to earn him inclusion on this list in many people's eyes!

Yes, he cost €45 million (£39m/$51m). Yes, we knew he was supposed to be good. But Vinicius Junior was still the revelation of Real Madrid's season.

It was initially thought that he might spend a significant chunk of his first season at the Santiago Bernabeu lining out for Castilla, particularly with Lopetegui seemingly unconvinced by the Flamengo prodigy.

However, credit where it's due, Solari knew straight away that the 18-year-old was ready for the first team and Vinicius provided the spark up front that ignited Madrid's season.

For several months, Vinicius was the best thing about Madrid: young, fearless and outrageously talented.

His performance in his first Clasico, in February's Copa del Rey clash, was a joy to behold and Brazil assistant coach Sylvinho left Camp Nou that night bowled over by the brilliance of the young winger.

Vinicius was promptly called into the Selecao squad but was forced to withdraw with ligament damage that sidelined him for two months.

The subsequent collapse of Real's season was no coincidence and, to look on the bright side, it underlined that Madrid's teenage sensation has quickly become one of their most important players.

Indeed, that €45m is now looking like a bargain!

The truly terrifying thought for Real Madrid fans is that if it hadn't been for Karim Benzema, this season could have been even worse.

While Gareth Bale and Marcos Asensio failed dismally to help fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo, the French forward carried the Blancos attack for long stretches of the season.
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As Jorge Valdano mused, "Without Benzema, there is no threat, and the team falls into the abyss."

Luckily, the 31-year-old has stayed injury-free for almost the entire season, resulting in one of the most productive campaigns of his entire career: 21 goals and six assists in La Liga.

Benzema may not always get the credit he deserves – for a variety of reasons – but we can say, for once, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has been Real Madrid's Player of the Season.

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