Borja Mayoral, Enzo Zidane enticing options in Real Madrid academy
Since taking over at Real Madrid last month, Zinedine Zidane has made a few moves to introduce some of his former charges at Castilla into the first-team fold. There have been no genuine breakthrough players in the first team for some time, other than perhaps Alvaro Morata, who was nonetheless forced to seek his fortune elsewhere eventually. Even if the Juventus striker is repurchased, there is no guarantee it will be to play for his boyhood club.
Fans of any club love a homegrown player in the side and Real Madrid's are no different. There are slim pickings in that respect for the Bernabeu faithful at the moment: bit part players in Jese and Nacho are about the size of it. However, after two months in charge Zidane has set a process in motion that may change that dynamic over the next season or two -- particularly if the club's appeals process against a FIFA transfer ban doesn't go the club's way. If Real are banned from signing new players for two windows, there is gold in the cantera: the side remain second in Segunda Division B Group II, right where Zidane left them. The club would do well to mine it before the standard expensive route to the end of the rainbow shuts up shop.
So far under Zidane, striker Mariano Diaz has been signed up to a long-term contract with a first-team squad number for 2016-17. The Dominican forward has also been included in Real's A-list for the Champions League for the remainder of this season alongside Austrian youth international Philipp Lienhart. Here are five Castilla players who may make the first-team grade under their former coach next season.
One of a handful of players currently out on loan, Llorente has played every minute of every league game he has been available for at Rayo this season, bar an 89th minute substitution against Atletico. Zidane had no say in the decision to loan Llorente across town to Paco Jemez's gung-ho attacking outfit but the 22-year-old central defender will be under a close watch. Llorente has played 2,069 league minutes for Rayo this season, gaining exactly the kind of solid Primera experience that Nacho Fernandez is being denied at the Bernabeu. Llorente is almost a head taller than Nacho, four years younger and if he continues to feature as regularly under Jemez for the remainder of the season, he'll have more top-flight experience under his belt than Nacho has in his career to date.
Lienhart may have got the call to the Champions League squad for the knock-out stages, but Tejero is probably closer to a first-team berth than the Austrian. Lienhart is a central defender and Real have had a few injury issues there this season. Tejero is a left-back and Zidane has a long-term problem in that position, with little in reserve behind Marcelo. No Castilla player, including first-choice keeper Carlos Abad, has been on the pitch more this season than Tejero. Back-up left-backs Abner and Sergio Reguilon have managed 290 minutes between them, the latter playing 270 at left-back over the last three games while Tejero moved effortlessly over to the other side of the back four. The 19-year-old made his first team debut in the Copa match against Cadiz in December.
No relation to Diego, but family ties are not to be ignored in the case of Llorente the midfielder. Great nephew to Real legend Paco Gento, and the son of Paco Llorente, Real DNA is in his blood. Llorente has also been almost an ever-present for Castilla this season, other than when he was named in the first team squad. The 21-year-old made his debut under Rafa Benitez against Levante in October and has made the match day list five times already this season. He has not yet been called up by Zidane but it's only a matter of time before the tactically aware and technically impressive Llorente sees the Frenchman's number pop up on his phone. Zidane didn't promote him straight from Juvenil A to Castilla, bypassing Real Madrid C (when it still existed), for nothing.
The Castilla captain's case is a little more delicate than most of his teammates, what with his surname. But if and when Enzo gets his first-team chance it won't be because his old man is the boss. Not only is Zidane's eldest a chip off the old block physically, he's starting to play like the France and Real legend as well. He even has the roulette down. Enzo will probably never reach the standard of his father -- that bar is set too high for pretty much everybody -- but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the Real Madrid number five shirt back in circulation before too long.
Mayoral is still only 18, but is being fast-tracked through the ranks and is not disappointing: there is a clamour among Madridistas already for the striker to feature more regularly for Real next season. Still registered with the Juvenil A side, Mayoral has been first choice for Castilla in 2015-16, scoring 11 goals including six in his last eight matches. Mariano has 13 for the season but has been used mostly as an impact substitute, with Mayoral leading the line in 19 starts from 23 matches.
He has been on the bench four times in the league for the seniors this season including at Malaga last weekend and was also in the squad for Champions League matches against Malmo and PSG. The Spain Under-21 international has said he models his game on Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Although he doesn't share a style exactly comparable to either, he combines elements of both with a sprinkling of Raul. His goal this week in the 3-1 Youth League win over Manchester City was an example.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.