30th August 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
For the second summer in a row, Real Madrid have not made a superstar signing. The club whose modern history is defined by their success on the field and their spending power off it, routinely breaking transfer records for “Galáctico” purchases, have, for the most part, decided to stick rather than twist.
They have, after all, just won the Champions League for the second year in a row, becoming the first team to defend the title since AC Milan of the early 1990s, so it’s hardly as though sweeping changes are required. Manager Zinédine Zidane can already count upon the services of four-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos, to name but a few of Los Blancos’ foremost luminaries.
It is also true that, were it not for the almighty spending power of Paris Saint-German, Madrid could well have been welcoming a new Galáctico this summer in the shape of Monaco teenager Kylian Mbappé. The Frenchman, a boyhood Madrid fan who counts Ronaldo as his idol, has instead elected to join the Ligue 1 giants, whose financial package offered to the player and the selling club has reportedly blown all competition out of the water.
But you won’t hear too many fans bemoaning the lack of big-money signings inside the Bernabéu right now. They are all far too busy trying to contain their excitement about a young forward already amid their ranks who is on the cusp of superstardom. Who needs Mbappé when you’ve got Marco Asensio?
The Spanish winger, signed for just €4 million from Mallorca three years ago, has been regarded as a prospect of some note for several seasons now, and impressed while on loan with Espanyol in 2015/16. Upon his return to the Bernabéu last summer, the youngster’s path to first-team action was blocked by the established front three of Karim Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo – the “BBC” as they are known.
Even if one of that trio were to fall injured, Isco, James Rodríguez, now at Bayern Munich, and Álvaro Morata, a summer signing for Chelsea, were ahead of Asensio in the pecking order. But Asensio gradually worked his way into contention, starting 11 games in La Liga and coming off the bench in a further 12, resulting in a total game time of 1077 minutes for the season.
As Madrid pushed for a Champions League and La Liga double, which they successfully attained, Asensio became more and more a feature of the supposed second-string side that Zidane began to field in winnable league games, resting the established stars for the continental competition.
It was in these games that the young Spain international shone. His direct dribbling skills, pace, vision and phenomenal shooting technique catching the eye, alerting fans to the fact that, not only is Asensio a player of real promise, but he could even develop into becoming capable of challenging the status quo of Madrid’s front three before long.
His return of three La Liga goals was matched in the Champions League, including one in the final against Juventus, profiting from Marcelo’s great work down the left flank to slot home from six yards to seal a 4-1 victory in stoppage time. Simply making the bench for the showpiece tie against the Italian champions in Cardiff evidenced an elevation in Asensio’s standing within Zidane’s squad, as he was selected among the substitute’s while there was no place for £63 million man James.
Then, while Bale, a 77th minute substitute returning from an injury layoff, struggled to influence the game in his home county, Asensio, who entered the fray five minutes later to replace Isco, proved dynamic and decisive, something he has made a habit of whenever given the chance.
“It’s incredible to win with Real Madrid and also to score in a Champions League final,” the 21-year-old winger said after the game.
Discussing the first-team opportunities he received late in the campaign as Zidane rotated, he said: “It’s been a huge step in my career. This is one of the most important years for me, I hope there will be more like this in the future.”
And he’s picked up right where he left off. Despite taking part in the European Under-21 Championship with Spain, progressing all the way to the final before defeat to Germany, Asensio looks like the fittest, freshest and most motivated member of the Madrid squad. A late substitute in the Spanish Super Cup first leg against Barcelona and a starter in the return fixture at the Bernabéu, he scored a spectacular long-range effort in each game as Los Blancos cruised to a 5-1 aggregate triumph.
With Ronaldo suspended for five games after a dismissal in the Super Cup first leg, the onus has been on Bale and Benzema to step up in the Portuguese superstar’s absence, but the pair have underwhelmed. In their first home La Liga match of the season, it was Asensio who opened the scoring against Marcelino’s Valencia. And, when the European champions fell behind, it was Asensio again who rescued them with a 20-yard free-kick to salvage a draw in the final 10 minutes.
While Bale, substituted after 74 minutes, left the field to jeers from the home support, the adulation Madrid fans feel for Asensio only grew. The young star has all the natural ability to become one of the best attacking players in the world and, crucially, he has the temperament and confidence to produce the goods when the chips are down, in the biggest games against the best sides.
Ronaldo and Bale are still the star attractions within the Bernabéu but there is no doubt that Asensio is deserving of his place in the team. There have been reports of interest in the player from the Premier League recently, with Liverpool and Arsenal both claimed to be readying bids, but he’s going nowhere; he’s already too important to Madrid. As right-back Dani Carvajal put it after the 21-year-old’s virtuoso display against Valencia: “There is no doubt that Asensio is already the present of Madrid, not the future.”