Real Madrid poised not to repeat Morata mistakes with Borja Mayoral
In a week when under normal circumstances Real Madrid may have expected to be participating in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, there was a snippet of good news for Madridismo.
Reports in Spain on Wednesday stated that the club are keen to secure 18-year-old striker Borja Mayoral's long-term future.
And quite a future it promises to be.
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The La Fabrica product is the jewel in the crown of Real's youth sides. Turning heads after banging in 43 goals in the 2014-15 campaign, Mayoral, wearing No. 43 on his back, was rewarded with a first-team debut under Carlo Ancelotti last May. The number given him was not quite the symbolic handover that occurred when Raul Gonzalez took up the baton from Emilio Butragueno in 1994-95, but it is the closest thing Real have had for some time.
The legendary No. 7, along with Iker Casillas and Guti, could be considered the last true product of the cantera to give the Bernabeu a homegrown hero. Youth team players during the Florentino Perez era have been conspicuous by their absence.
Mayoral certainly fits the bill. Still officially registered with Juvenil A, he became a fixture under Zinedine Zidane after making his debut for Castilla at the tail end of last season.
His scoring record is phenomenal: nine goals in 10 appearances for Castilla so far in 2015-16, with three in three in the Youth League, at a rate of one every 91 minutes. Last season he hit seven in seven in the junior version of the Champions League and one in two games for Castilla in Segunda B.
Every time Mayoral has been asked to make a step up, he has delivered, scoring at every level up to under-21 for Spain, including nine in 12 games for the under-19s and three in the 2015 European Championship at that age level, finishing as the tournament's top scorer and bagging one in the final as the icing on the cake.
The question is, what is the club's long-term plan for the most precocious talent in the cantera? There is a precedent, and he is currently at Juventus.
When the inquest into Real's semifinal exit in last season's Champions League was in full flow, the question on Madridismo's lips was this: Why was Alvaro Morata scoring in each leg for the Bianconeri and not Los Blancos?
Ahead of the 2014-15 season, when all logic pointed to Morata being handed the reserve striker role behind Karim Benzema, the 22-year-old elected to join Juventus, prompting Real into a deadline deal for Javier Hernandez. It is probably a source of some regret within the Bernabeu and for all the talk of a buy-back clause, Morata seems reluctant to return.
Real would be wise to tack on some assurances about first-team opportunities in their upcoming talks with Mayoral. Zidane is understandably leaning on his experienced players in the early days of his tenure: Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro and Denis Cheryshev have all but disappeared from view under the Frenchman. Jese has been handed a few minutes from the bench, but is as far from a breakthrough as he has ever been.
The Real manager is clearly no adherent to the much-mocked "Zidanes and Pavones" experiment that doomed Florentino Perez's first reign at the Bernabeu. Denied the Copa to offer some fringe players and youth-teamers a run-out, Zidane has his hands tied given the need for immediate returns.
However, nobody knows the cantera better than its former manager, and Zidane has already asked that Mariano Diaz be offered a new contract and promotion to the first team next season. The 22-year-old forward from the Dominican Republic was the ultimate super-sub for Zidane at Castilla, hitting 12 goals in 16 appearances, mostly from the bench, before his coach moved to the big chair.
Mariano has played just 917 minutes in 2015-16, finding the net in every 76. But he remains the back-up option behind Mayoral.
The transfer ban hanging over Real presents a bit of a conundrum for Perez. The club have stated there will be no new signings in January, on the basis of the belief that the ban will either be overturned entirely or postponed until 2017, allowing for new players to be brought in during the summer.
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But if that is the case, Perez will be hamstrung in 2017 -- an election year. The president's usual strategy is to promise a Galactico at such junctures. Perhaps a better ploy to win over the Bernabeu would be to ensure a homegrown talent in the team between then and now.
If Real do sign a striker the stature of Robert Lewandowski this summer, in all likelihood Perez favourite Karim Benzema will be the one to make way. Mayoral will be happier to play understudy. In the future, he could be the local boy talisman the club has lacked since Raul was put out to pasture.
Mayoral's game is based on his two reference points at the club: combining Raul's lethal touch with Benzema's ability to hold the ball up, pull defenders out of position and produce a decisive pass -- similar in many ways to his predecessor in the Real waiting room.
The club was left to rue the departure of Morata in more ways than one. It seems that Perez is not about to make the same mistake again. Time will tell, but Mayoral should be fast-tracked to the senior squad this summer just to make sure.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.