Why raiding left-back Theo Hernandez is wanted by Madrid and Europe's elite
Ahead of Saturday's La Liga "derbi" between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, one player has been making headlines in the Spanish capital: teenage left-back Theo Hernandez.
Theo, 19, has put many of Europe's biggest clubs on alert with his performances on loan from Atletico Madrid at Alaves this season and Marca upped the stakes with Tuesday's cover story claiming that Real Madrid were set to trigger his €24 million release clause to take him across the Spanish capital next summer.
The talk about the youngster, who will not even be playing on Saturday, shows how highly rated he is -- and the evidence so far suggests we'll be hearing a lot more about him in the future.
Here are five things to know about the Real Madrid transfer target:
1. He's wanted by many of Europe's top clubs
Long before he emerged as a senior Primera Division regular, Theo was on the radar of many clubs inside and outside of Spain. Barcelona and Manchester City were reportedly interested in signing him last summer, before he agreed on an improved contract with Atletico and was then loaned out for the season to newly promoted Alaves.
The raiding left-back has been almost ever-present as the Basque side have had an excellent first season back in La Liga and reached the Copa del Rey final. Such performances have apparently also alerted Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Liverpool, in addition to persuading both Madrid and Barca to firm up their interest.
Now, nobody doubts that Theo is set to be a top player and his fellow Marseille native Zinedine Zidane was fulsome in his praise when asked about the Marca "exclusive" earlier this week. "[Theo] is a good player," said the Real Madrid manager. "There is no doubt about that."
2. He's the son and brother of Atletico players
Theo is the younger brother of current Atletico reserve defender Lucas Hernandez and the son of Jean-Francois Hernandez, who played at the Estadio Vicente Calderon in 2000-01.
Born in Marseille when their father was with Olympique de Marseille, the two siblings came through Atletico's youth system and have long been earmarked as senior stars for both club and country.
They played together regularly for Atletico in the UEFA Youth League and last season became the first brothers in 60 years to share a pitch representing the Colchoneros' first team.
3. He makes lung-bursting runs up the wings
While both Hernandez brothers are almost identically tall and strong, Theo is the more attack-minded and technically talented of the two. His regular lung-bursting runs down the wing have been a feature of Alaves' season, with few opposition wingers or full-backs able to deal with his pace and physicality once he gets motoring.
There are similarities with a young Gareth Bale in the way Theo simply pushes the ball past his marker and sprints powerfully into the space. This was particularly evident when he eased aside Madrid's Danilo on the way to providing an assist for teammate Deyverson in October's La Liga clash.
Such runs are a key tactical part of Alaves' setup and opposition coaches have tried different ways to stop him without success. "The leap from the youth setup is very big. I thought it would be a bit more difficult for me," Theo said with understatement to El Pais last month.
4. He's relaxed about his situation
With his performances attracting increasing attention as the months pass, Theo has also shown precocious self-confidence off the pitch. Interviewed by AS ahead of last weekend's game at the Bernabeu, he was not ruffled in the slightest when informed Madrid's board had reportedly offered to triple his current salary this summer.
"I heard that report," Theo replied evenly. "But I am very relaxed. It is not the first time I have been linked with a big club. I belong to Atletico." He then went on to parry back a number of questions over his future, suggesting that he was happy to have different options to consider and in no hurry to make a decision.
5. His future is still uncertain
With Atletico having plenty of strength and depth in defence and Brazil international Filipe Luis firmly established as the club's first-choice left-back, Theo's future now looks quite uncertain.
Asked about the situation after Tuesday's 1-0 La Liga win over Real Sociedad, Simeone also chose his words very carefully. The manager said contract matters would be dealt with when the season was over and added: "I spoke with Theo a month or so ago and we both know what we said to each other."
Atletico president Enrique Cerezo has spoken a few times about Madrid's apparent interest this week, but perhaps his most telling comment about the situation was "players play where they want to play." And Theo appears to be a confident young man well in control of his own destiny.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan