Martin Odegaard call-up for Real Madrid is next step in his progression
While most 16 year olds are studying for their end-of-year exams, one is preparing himself for a possible debut outing with a 10-time European champion in front of close to 80,000 people on Wednesday night.
Teenage sensation Martin Odegaard has been named in Carlo Ancelotti's match day squad for the first time since Real Madrid won the race for his signature in January. Madrid host Almeria in a crucial Liga encounter, and the Italian confirmed in Tuesday's prematch press conference that the Norwegian will be in his initial 20-man squad.
It provides another big step in the rapid trajectory of a player who only made his senior bow in the not-so-prestigious surroundings of Norway's Tippeligaen just over a year ago. Odegaard may still miss out on a place on the bench on Wednesday night. Ancelotti needs to trim his squad by two before kick-off but confirmed that two of the three Castilla players he called-up would be involved. That he is involved at all is progress for a player who has a well-planned blueprint for his progression.
His call-up will be a surprise for some given his age, the importance of the match and the fact that he has hardly achieved star status playing for Zinedine Zidane's Castilla team in the third tier of Spanish football. However, Wednesday provides the perfect opportunity for all parties to continue with the Odegaard project. It will likely be the only chance this season to ensure the first stage of his development in the Spanish capital goes according to plan.
The demands from the Norway international's party have been well documented. Madrid faced competition from clubs such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester City and Liverpool -- the club he supports -- when he was eligible to sign a professional deal after turning 16 in December. That competition meant the young star, or at least his party, had plenty of bargaining power.
As part of his move, his father, Hans Erik, was offered a job at the club. And although the youngster would play for Madrid's B team, there was also a promise he would be able to train with first-team stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez. That he has been training with a different team to the one he is playing competitive matches with has raised questions. It also highlights the power the Odegaard party had in the transfer.
That he could be involved against Almeria is also a likely component of his arrival in Spain. Injuries to Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric have hit Madrid's attack, while suspensions to Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos on Wednesday night have further hurt Ancelotti's squad. Still, Odegaard's form in Segunda B has not yet been worthy of a call-up to the first team, and it seems like Madrid may be taking the opportunity to give the youngster a glimpse of La Liga, keep him on his toes and keep him happy.
That Madrid are facing a side such as Almeria also helps. With respect to Keylor Navas, the sight of the Costa Rican starting in goal usually links well with a confidence from Ancelotti that he can rest some of his stars and keep others happy. Navas has made four Liga starts in goal this season, and they have come against Elche, Rayo Vallecano, Levante and Eibar. All home games against teams at the wrong end of the table. Teams who Madrid can afford to take their foot off the gas against.
Madrid coasted to victory in all four of those matches. And if they are coasting against Sergi Barjuan's Almeria, expect to see Norway's youngest international given the nod for his debut. Along with the season finale against Getafe, a home game against Almeria provides Madrid with the best chance to blood their young star, and they will not want to miss out.
If he does see the field, Odegaard will become the youngest player to feature for Madrid in La Liga. Sebastian Posada previously held the record when he played against Sporting Gijon in 1984 aged 17 years and six days. The former Stromsgodset man will topple that feat by a good six months if he pulls on the all white shirt at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Odegaard is no stranger to the record books, after becoming the youngest player to play in the Norwegian top-flight aged 15 years and 117 days and becoming the youngest goal scorer just a month later. He is also Norway's youngest-ever international and the youngest player to feature in a European Qualifier, after featuring for his country against Croatia aged 15 years and 300 days.
He will not be able to break the record for youngest La Liga scorer, however, after passing the 16 years and 98 days it took Fabrice Olinga to score for Malaga in their 2012-13 season opener against Celta Vigo. He also missed out on taking former Chelsea defender Celestine Babayaro's Champions League record when Ancelotti decided against including him in his squad to face Schalke in the last-16 tie.
Given Odegaard's early impressions, records will mean little. "It was the best choice for my development," he said no fewer than three times during his presentation in January. His party did not rush into choosing their club, and it seems like they genuinely want the best for the player's long-term future rather than a quick buck and the high glamour of arguably the world's biggest and most famous football club.
That the player could feature on Wednesday night will not only help please all parties but will put the player in the shop window for a possible loan move elsewhere next season. A continuation with Castilla, despite his early struggles, would be possible if they manage promotion to the Segunda next season, but that is still in the balance. A jump to regular first-team action seems too soon. Despite the benefits of playing in the Castilla system and under a man in Zinedine Zidane who could be Madrid's first team coach in the not-too-distant future, a loan move elsewhere may be preferable.
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Odegaard at least has experience all around him. Although Iker Casillas will only be on the bench, he has a player to turn to who progressed through the Madrid ranks and made his Champions League debut aged 16. Indeed, the 33 year old played for Madrid's first team for the first time before the Norwegian youngster was even born.
He also has 22-year-old Jese Rodriguez as someone who is more within his range of experience. The Las Palmas-born attacker shone for Castilla and burst into the first team last season but has shown signs of frustration at failing to continue his progression this season. A serious knee injury has played a big role in that, but reports in Spain have suggested he could copy what Alvaro Morata did last summer and head for pastures new to aid his evolution.
Being in and around the matchday squad and to get a taste of the Bernabeu will only be a good thing for Odegaard, especially on what is expected to be a comfortable night against Almeria. But it will be the exception rather than the rule for a player who still has a long way to go.