Real Madrid have started the 2017-18 season just as they finished 2016-17: winning trophies.
Having ended a four-trophy campaign with the Champions League and La Liga, Los Blancos have begun the new season in similar fashion.
They saw off Manchester United to win the UEFA Super Cup in Skopje, claiming the trophy for the second successive campaign. Now, they have torn Barcelona, their great rivals, to pieces, making Ernesto Valverde’s side look directionless in the first games of the post-Neymar era.
For all but 31 minutes of the 270’ played so far, Los Blancos have been without Cristiano Ronaldo, their talisman. Sure he stepped from the bench at Camp Nou to make a telling contribution in the first leg, scoring a startling effort as he cut inside Gerard Pique, two minutes before getting himself sent off; but largely, as he slowly works his way back to full fitness after an extended summer, they have done without.
In his absence, rising to further prominence, has been the fast-maturing, wonderfully-talented youngster Marco Asensio, showing that if Ronaldo – the man for the big moment on the big occasion – isn’t there to make a difference, then he is more than ready to step into the breach.
In Catalunya, with Barca pushing for an equaliser and Madrid down to 10 men, substitute Asensio made a 60 yard run to join a counter-attack, received the ball and the clattered a shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegen into the top corner. He promptly bettered it in the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, having been given the nod to start ahead of Gareth Bale.
Less than five minutes had gone when the ball fell from the sky some 25 yards from the Barcelona goal. Asensio’s first touch was precise, his second nudged the ball out of his feet and his third left Ter Stegen utterly bamboozled, as a vicious drive wickedly dipped below his crossbar and into the German’s net.
It was another blockbuster moment – in what is a fast-growing portfolio – for the new prince of Madrid.
Ronaldo, at 32, can’t go on forever, and is increasingly having to be rested and nursed between games. The question of how the 12-time European champions replace the Portuguese superstar is being discussed with increasing regularity. Well, except in the corridors of the Bernabeu and the Valdebebas training ground, where they already have the answer: Asensio.
In his debut season at the Bernabeu – having spent the 18 months since signing for a meagre €3.9million on loan at first former club Mallorca and then Espanyol – Asensio grew into his role as a game-changing substitute. He wasn’t going to start ahead of the big names, but when handed the opportunity to come on – 10 minutes here, half hour there – his job was to be ready, add punch, and show his quality.
He did precisely that. From the moment he struck he struck Real’s first of the season in the European Super Cup win over Sevilla – an effort eerily similar to tonight’s effort – up until he bagged the last in the 4-1 Champions League final win over Juventus in Cardiff, Asensio showed his class and that he has some future ahead of him. He finished the campaign with 38 appearances (1,918 minutes) under his belt and 10 goals to his name. He had proved he belonged.
Asensio has continued where he left off last term (Image: Getty Images Europe)
Having initially left Zidane enthused with both his talent and his willingness to learn and work for his place, he eventually left Real Madrid chiefs and player’s from yesteryear similarly struck by his quality. He has also left Barcelona chiefs pig sick after they failed to meet his buyout clause during his time at San Moix, despite having first option to do so.
Barca chiefs looked to pay his fee in instalments – €2.5million up front with €2million in add-ons – procrastinated, and are now paying the price.
“Barca said: ‘No, we’re not able.’ They lost the opportunity,” Horacio Gaggioli, the player’s long-time agent, said. “When they changed their mind after three months, it was too late.
“The offer from Real Madrid for Asensio was 20 times better than Barcelona’s in every aspect, football-wise and financially.”
He showed his class time and time again last season; the ability to glide past opponents, to create, to pass, to move, to perform with an intelligence that belies his young years. At the European Under-21 Championships in the summer, he showed he wasn’t just a star that flickered among the galaxy, but could also standout and shine brightest of all.
His emergence over the last 12 months is a major reason – perhaps the biggest – as to why James Rodriguez has been allowed to exit through the back door, leaving for Bayern Munich on a two-year loan.
“Asensio has become a big player and can become a Ballon d’Or winner,” Florentino Perez, the club president, has stated. That’s Florentino Perez, the man with the Galacticos’ fetish.
A future golden ball winner? (Image: 2017 Getty Images)
Last season was his breakthrough, his coming out party. Now, at 21, the kid named after Dutch icon Marco van Basten is ready to be a major player.
He’s forcing the issue in his quest for first-team football with his on-field performances. Off the field however, he’s making no demands. He’s aware of the talent he’s fighting against, and is instead taking it day by day, learning, listening, improving.
Of course, there is a limit to that patience. The supporters are pushing already, wanting to see him in the first-team – which is bad news for Bale. Zidane is aware he needs games, and provided he keeps working, is willing to give them to him. That Zidane was his idol as a child, “he used to have a huge picture of him on his wall,” says Gaggioli.
The club will need to give something extra also. His current contract, featuring a £72million buyout clause, continues to remain. Talks over a new deal have been ongoing throughout the summer. An extension, improved salary and vastly increased release clause – mandatory in Spain – are becoming a matter of urgency.
“He has much to offer now and a great future ahead of him. He’s a young guy, eager to work and he’s currently doing very well,” said Raul, the club legend ahead of the second leg.
“Asensio is a lot better player than I was,” Guti has declared. “He has an unlimited ceiling. The future is at his feet.”
After three European Cup wins in the last four years, Real Madrid are on the verge of dominating the game, and have made signing Europe’s best young players a priority over the summer as they aim for a repeat of their 1950s dominance. For the likes of Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez, Asensio is showing the way.
He took just four minutes to show why.