Saul Niguez has become indispensable to Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone
As Saul Niguez volleyed home against Real Sociedad to make it 2-0 and effectively seal the win for Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night, he not only capped another fantastic display this campaign, but also highlighted his importance to Diego Simeone's side.
The 21-year-old is Los Rojiblancos' second top scorer with seven this term and after starting the season on the periphery is now one of the first names on the team sheet at the Vicente Calderon and an indispensable member of the first eleven XI.
He has come a long way from the boy who made his debut for the club aged just 17 in 2012 in the Europa League. A La Liga debut came in April 2013, but it was to be the 2013-14 season where he showed he had what it takes to succeed. While Atleti were busy winning the league title, Saul made 34 top division starts on loan at Rayo Vallecano and caught Simeone's eye.
While the 2014-15 campaign was a slow burner, he exploded into life with a wonderful cameo after coming on as a substitute in the opening five minutes in the 4-0 victory over Real Madrid in last February's Madrid derby. He went on to make 34 appearances in all competitions and grew immensely in stature. While it was not all plain sailing, his is an example of how hard work can pay off.
Having struggled to gain a regular place in the XI in the early weeks of the season, a combination of Atleti adopting a more rigid 4-4-2 style, in addition to a serious injury to Tiago, meant that the youngster got a chance to impress. He has taken the opportunity with both hands.
A nailed-on starter who is seemingly indefatigable, Saul often overs the most ground of any player on the pitch, whether in his natural role in the centre of the park or out on the left. He has played 32 times already and will, barring a serious injury, rack up at least 40 by the time summer comes.
His composure on the ball, passing range and eye for goal have all evolved in a campaign that has seen him go from squad player to key man and calls for a spot in Vicente del Bosque's Euro 2016 squad are growing.
With the likes of Atleti teammate Koke and Real Madrid's Isco struggling for form and Santi Cazorla injured, there is a compelling argument to be made that Niguez deserves a go with the national side ahead. The under-21 international has never earned a senior cap, yet is making as compelling a case as anyone to earn a surprise late call up.
Simeone, a former tenacious midfielder himself, claimed back in September: "He can go as far as he wants to. He has everything." Praise indeed from a great of the game and while it could be argued this was just a manager trying to boost his player's self-esteem, the subsequent months have proven the coach's eulogies were not misguided in the slightest. Perhaps his abilities are not that obvious to the casual observer, but to the Calderon faithful he has it all and is cherished. He is, after all, one of their own.
Yet it could have all been so different. The son of a footballer, he is the youngest -- and most gifted -- of three brothers who are all professionals. Saul's talent was so evident that aged 11 he was on the books of Atleti's great city rivals Real Madrid. Had things worked differently, he could have been lining up against his current teammates sporting the white of Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Unfortunately (for Real), "off field issues" caused the young midfielder to decide his future lay away from their academy. "They stole my boots, food, punished me by not allowing me to go to Valdebebas [Madrid's training ground and academy] for two weeks for things that I didn't do," he told newspaper El Mundo in a candid interview ahead of last Saturday's 1-0 derby victory.
Madrid's loss, however, is very much Atletico's gain with Niguez now usurping Koke as the latest academy graduate-cum star of whom big things are expected on the banks of the Manzanares River.
Stories earlier this week said that the club and the player have started negotiations over a new, improved deal despite the fact his current contract runs until 2020.
It is just reward for a standout player whom the report also claims is being eyed by the likes of Manchester United -- who retain a long-term interest in the player -- among others. The sticking point at the moment appears to be wage demands, but at 21, Saul is proving to have that much potential he would be worth splashing the cash on.
Above all the club would be well advised to move swiftly to tie him down and increase his buyout clause, which currently stands at a relatively cheap (in the modern market) €24 million. Having said last month: "If I were offered a lifelong contract, I'd be delighted to play here for as long as my legs allow me," Atleti should answer the plea with an offer he can't refuse.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.