Solari scholars like Vinicius Junior invigorating Real Madrid's revival
Ahead of a trip to Ajax, masters of procuring their homegrown talent, it is the cadets of Castilla that have put the Spanish club back on track
The most decorated club in European Cup history will on Wednesday pass through corridors that celebrate perhaps the most fabled nursery in the game. Go to Ajax, and you are surrounded by reminders homegrown excellence is a trademark, part of their brand.
Once upon a time, the Dutch club’s talent for scouting and nurturing talents from within and around Amsterdam brought them sustained domination, three successive European Cups from 1972 to 1974. But recruitment strategies to launch a run like that are very different in the 21st century.
Real Madrid, at Ajax for the first leg of a prestigious Uefa Champions League last-16 tie, have achieved their latest back-to-back European titles thanks chiefly to a glittering collection of imported superstars.
Ajax remain immensely proud of their academy, and grateful to some of its graduates for bringing them into the knockout stage for the first time since 2006. But the idea that Wednesday is a collision of opposites, homegrown heroes against the global star-magnet of Madrid, would be misguided.
The Real bandwagon, rolling into the Netherlands on the back of five Liga wins in five, a week after an impressive Copa del Rey draw at Camp Nou against Barcelona, is, unusually, being galvanised by a cadre of players from its own academy.
Start with their manager, Santiago Solari, who on taking over from Julen Lopetegui in October became the fourth of the four most recent Madrid coaches to have a background - in playing or coaching - at the club. He was elevated, like Zinedine Zidane was, direct from Castilla, the club’s B squad, to take over in mid-season.
So far so good. Like Zidane, who replaced Rafa Benitez in early 2016, Solari has made a good start to his first attempt at senior management. Indeed, their records compare: Zidane’s career as Madrid’s emergency manager began with 20 wins and three draws from his first 25 matches; Solari has reached his quarter-century with 19 wins and two draws. Omens? Zidane went on claim three Champions League titles and a Liga crown before he had reached 150 games.
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Solari, who played for Madrid in an era when expensive recruits - his teammates in the early 2000s included Zidane, Brazil’s Ronaldo, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo - left little room for academy graduates, has bucked that instinct. He inherited a Madrid who had lost direction under the brief tenure of Lopetegui. So he looked to the place he knew best to find a spark: among the cadets of Castilla.
Chief beneficiary of Solari’s bold thinking: Vinicius Junior, the 18-year-old whom Madrid signed from Flamengo for a breathtaking €45 million and who scored four goals in five Castilla matches under Solari at the beginning of the season. The Brazilian has since joined the first team and flourished, with seven assists and three goals from his 1,220 minutes.
And he has verve, an exciting, daring winger with the Bernabeu already in the palm of his hand. So much so that Solari cautions against too much expectation: “He is still young enough that some of you may have kids his age,” the Argentine told reporters ahead of the trip to Amsterdam.
Less celebrated, but notable is the rise of left-back Sergio Reguilon, attached to Real Madrid since he was eight, and in the starting XI for the last four Liga matches, including Saturday’s high-pressure derby at Atletico Madrid. Reguilon is 22, and achieving something historic, making Madridistas question the importance of Marcelo, their magnificent attacking left-back for over a decade.
Against Atletico, where a 3-1 win put Real up to second in the table, five players with a Castilla past were in the starting line-up. If Dani Carvajal and the Brazilian Casemiro represent the bristling ambition of academy men who know their club has often overlooked its own up-and-coming talents, Lucas Vazquez, the Spain international winger is perhaps the senior standard-bearer right now. He joined Madrid at 16. Eleven years on, Vazquez has never felt surer of an elevated place in the Real hierarchy.
These Solari scholars take on a Ajax where the tradition of homegrown excellence is still visible, epitomised in the teenaged captain, Matthijs de Ligt, but no longer an absolute guiding principle. Ajax, who have just agreed a deal to sell midfielder Frenkie de Jong, 21, to Barcelona in July for a fee that could rise over €85m, may even have fewer of their own academy graduates among tonight’s starters than their visitors do. Solari would be entitled to feel proud of that, if they earn him a victory.
Updated: February 13, 2019 08:53 AM