It is not that long since crisis reigned at Real Madrid, a club where two games without victory sparks an internal investigation and whistles from the Bernabeu crowd. In February, a draw against Malaga and home defeat in the Madrid derby undid the good work of Zinedine Zidane’s promising start as coach.
Two months later, and the Bernabeu mood is one of renewed optimism. Barcelona’s patchy league form and Champions League exit, combined with an upturn in Real’s own results, has brought ambitions of an unlikely league and European double. Zidane’s team have now won nine straight La Liga matches. They are short-priced favourites to reach only their second Champions League final since 2002.
Amid the obvious discussions over Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness, Gareth Bale’s return to England, Karim Benzema’s frame of mind and the majestic sh*thousery of Sergio Ramos and Pepe, the most important of Real Madrid’s players may actually be found in the middle of those aforementioned names, hidden by piles of headlines. Recalled to the side after those setbacks against Malaga and Atletico, Brazilian Casemiro is the new flavour of the month in Madrid.
Cheap, unfussy and unnoticed, Casemiro is the antidote to Florentino Perez’s gold-plated Galactico dream. He was also entirely unwanted until Rafael Benitez arrived at the club, loaned out to Porto with a contractual option to buy. But Benitez looking at a squad without a regulation holding midfielder is like a hungry Winnie the Pooh mournfully examining an empty honey pot. Real Madrid and Perez were forced to pay Porto to eliminate the clause in Casemiro’s contract. In a new low for transfer market logic, Madrid bought back their own player.
Zidane too ignored Casemiro after his arrival, but re-introduced him to the side after the derby defeat. The Brazilian’s wonderful performance in El Clasico earned him significant plaudits in the Spanish media, but also from his teammate Luka Modric. Casemiro made eight tackles, five more than any other player on the pitch, losing possession just seven times in 90 minutes in the biggest game of his career.
“Casemiro is in good form at the moment and he has to continue like this,” Modric said. “He is an example of how with work and dedication you can do big things. He contributes a lot to the team and I want it to stay that way.” Rested for the weekend game against Rayo Vallecano – in which Madrid conceded twice – Casemiro is now vital to the performance of Zidane’s team. He is Madrid’s water carrier.
Although Casemiro is not currently part of Brazil’s set-up, head coach Dunga – himself a magnificent holding midfielder – understands his necessity to this Madrid team. “Someone has to carry the piano for Real Madrid,” Dunga told Esporte Interativo. “Real Madrid have so many players who like playing with the ball at their feet, so someone has to steal that ball, protect the defence.” From one water carrier to another.
One wonders what Real’s president makes of it all, for Perez’s commitment to attempting to win trophies without a defensive midfielder really must be (sarcastically) applauded. In 2003, he decided that Claude Makelele’s style hardly befitted a team of Galacticos.
“We will not miss Makélelé,” Perez said. “His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.”
Over the next three years, Real failed to win a single trophy. Perez resigned in February 2006, Real Madrid signed Mahamadou Diarra and Emerson and promptly won two straight league titles.
In 2014, history repeated itself. In his four years in Madrid, Xabi Alonso had won a league title, two Copa Del Rey trophies, the UEFA Super Cup and was an integral part of the side that finally landed La Decima in the Champions League, although he missed the final through suspension. That summer, Alonso was sold to Bayern Munich, replaced by Toni Kroos. Kroos is an excellent passer of the ball, but he is no holding midfielder.
The season before Alonso arrived, Real Madrid won nothing. They finished nine points behind Barcelona in La Liga, were knocked out of the Champions League last 16 by Alonso’s Liverpool and exited the Copa del Rey in the round of 32. Fernando Gago and Lassana Diarra shared the defensive responsibilities.
The season after Alonso left, Real Madrid finished behind Barcelona in La Liga, lost to Juventus in the Champions League semi-finals and exited the Copa del Rey in the round of 16. With Sami Khedira suffering a long-term injury, Real most often played without a recognised defensive midfielder. Khedira was then also sold.
It was Zidane who issued the famous defence of Makelele when he was sold to Chelsea: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Now he is the one forced to rely on managerial pragmatism. Only Real Madrid’s president sees that as a negative rather than necessity.
Casemiro is far from the ideal option for a prospective Champions League winner, with Manchester City’s own Brazilian holding midfielder ahead of him in the national team queue. Casemiro is not the solution to the problem, only the best answer available. Zidane must persuade Perez this summer that you need grit to match glamour, and that both are equally important.
1998, 2000, 2002 and 2014; for each of Real Madrid’s four Champions League triumphs they have relied upon an expert holding midfielder. Fernando Redondo, Makelele and Alonso may have had very different styles, but all three were the constant around whom the glamour players could shine.
Now Real Madrid are forced to depend on a 24-year-old Brazilian who was persona non grata less than a year ago. Casemiro’s ability to deal with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva might just decide the outcome of this semi-final. Real Madrid don’t need all of their Bentleys to fire to overcome Manchester City, but they’ll sure need their engine.