A number of accusations have been angled at Zinedine Zidane this season, but one of the most persistent was the criticism that the Frenchman had lost his capacity for changing games from the bench. It was ironic, then, that Real Madrid passed their biggest test of the season so far thanks to the substations made by their manager.
Indeed, Real’s Champions League last 16 win over PSG hinged on the introduction of Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez in the second half. Until then, the match could have swung either way. But it was with the substitution of this trio, particularly Asensio, that the dynamic changed.
It served as a reminder of Asensio’s quality. The 22-year-old has been a peripheral figure for Real Madrid this season, for the most part having to make do with cameo appearances off the bench. Last season, Asensio was billed as a future Ballon d’Or winner. Not so much a Galactico in the making, but a fully-fledged one already.
But he lost his way. The confidence and self-assurance that once made Asensio such a remarkable talent vanished, with the Spanish international becoming the crudest embodiment of Real Madrid’s ailing season. Some even speculated whether Asensio would still be at the Santiago Bernabeu come next season.
His performance against PSG could prove to be a watershed in the winger’s career, and in Real Madrid’s season. Trailing Barcelona at the top of La Liga by a giant 17 points, Real Madrid gave up on their domestic title defence long ago. Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by minnows Leganes, they also don’t have any cup distractions. And so their entire season will come down to the Champions League, where they are going for a third successive triumph.
Real Madrid need a catalyst ahead of the second half of the campaign, and in Asensio they might have found one. It’s not just that the 22-year-old provides a threat of his own, getting in behind opposition defences as he did time and time again to PSG, he also draws the best out of others around him. It’s no coincidence that Ronaldo enjoyed his best performance in months with Asensio adding to the service.
With Asensio on the pitch for the final 15 minutes or so, it was almost as if Real Madrid remembered what has made them so successful, so dangerous, over the past few years. It was as if the muscle memory had kicked in, with PSG unable to handle what the likes of Asensio, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were throwing at them on the rapid counter attack.
This should be the model Real Madrid adopt for the rest of the season. Wednesday night underlined the strength in depth Zinedine Zidane has at his disposal, showing why the Spanish giants must still be considered one of the frontrunners for this season’s Champions League title despite their recent struggles.
This isn’t to say that Asensio should be an automatic starter for Real Madrid from this point on. European football, particularly at the top level, requires a level of control, and that’s what the Spanish showed in the first hour of their last 16 clash with PSG. But Asensio gave them a different dimension and that’s what Zidane has lacked so far this season. This is why the winger’s 15-minute display on Wednesday night was so significant.
It’s not so long ago that all of European football was gushing over Asensio. He scored in Champions League finals and Clasicos. Zidane claimed that the 22-year-old’s left foot was the best he’d seen since Lionel Messi. He was seemingly unstoppable but then suffered a dip that so many young players suffer. But the true mark of a great talent is the way they maintain their brilliance. If Real Madrid are to retain the Champions League for a third straight year, it’s likely that Asensio will be a primary factor.
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