Inside La Liga: Real Madrid flirt with youth but Ronaldo still the saviour

Last week, many around Real Madrid were claiming that the selection of their youth talent was their best hope of getting something from this season.

Inside La Liga: Real Madrid flirt with youth but Ronaldo still the saviour

Due to injuries and suspensions, Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane chose former B-team players Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro in Wednesday’s 3-1 La Liga win at Levante. Centre-forward Borja Mayoral, 18, also got a first senior start.

This pleased Blancos fans and pundits who feel that Madrid’s expensive superstars, like €80 million signing James Rodriguez, do not always try as hard as they should. Many also believe that many of the club’s big names are not team players, as evidenced in Cristiano Ronaldo’s controversial comments after the defeat to Atletico Madrid a week earlier.

AS editor Alfredo Relano wrote that “in times of crisis, you reach for the cantera [youth system]”, harking back to the 1960s and 1980s when generations of youngsters came through together and brought success to the senior team.

Marca continued that theme, with the pretty modestly talented 24-year-old Vazquez featured on its cover.

Madrid’s new galactico coach has been reminded of the ‘Zidanes and Pavones’ idea of his own playing career. This was a policy of mixing expensive stars with cheap youth products promoted by club president Florentino Perez during his first term.

It the end, home-grown centre-back Paco Pavon struggled to impress, and the policy’s failure led directly to Florentino stepping down [temporarily] in January 2006, with Zidane also retiring as a player earlier than expected.

“I never liked the ‘Zidanes and Pavones’ idea,” the Frenchman said on Friday. “It always happens that young players come in. In the dressing room, we are all the same.”

Madrid players starting Saturday’s home game against Celta Vigo were also reminded of the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu’s expectations. A banner recalled the famous quote from 1950s legend Alfredo Di Stefano that “to wear this badge, you have to sweat the shirt”.

The mood remained unsettled well into the game, even after Pepe’s header put Madrid ahead just before half-time, with Lucas and Mayoral running hard but creating little. Soon after the break, there were loud whistles from frustrated home fans when Ronaldo lost possession in midfield, then misplaced a simple pass.

The prickly Portuguese reacted by swerving a shot to the net from 30 yards — cupping his hand to his ear during his goal celebration — and added three more strikes over the next 25 minutes with a fine free kick, close-range finish and a header from a corner. Substitutes Jese Rodriguez and fit again superstar Gareth Bale were also the scoresheet as the game ended 7-1.

Asked afterwards if he had said something special to lift his team at half-time, Zidane more or less accepted it had been his number seven alone who had changed the course of the game.

“There was something said at half-time, of course,” he said. “But always when you score a goal, it is easier. I’m happy when Cristiano is scoring goals.” Ronaldo has now scored 39 of Madrid’s 105 goals in all competitions this season. His 27 in La Liga mean he is the top scorer across all Europe’s top leagues.

At 31, he is not the player he was, and struggles against top defences, but he is still much better than most. By Sunday morning, Relano was back to reality — “Cristiano is by far the best player this Madrid team has,” said the AS editorial. “Any possibility of putting this season right is down to him.”

“A voracious Cristiano eats up Celta,” said Marca’s cover.

The stories about Lucas and Mayoral made for nice reading over the last week, and many Bernabeu fans and pundits would prefer to have wholesome homegrown heroes to cheer on. But as they head into tomorrow night’s Champions League last 16 against Roma, Madrid’s hopes this season really rest with Ronaldo.

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