Marco Asensio's blistering form must force Zinedine Zidane to abandon the BBC
It was a small detail, one of those stats published as a bit of an afterthought on a Monday morning after a Real Madrid victory: Marco Asensio's second goal in the thriller in Seville was Real Madrid's 6,000th strike in La Liga, making the Spanish club the only one in Europe outside of five English sides to achieve the feat of 6,000 league goals.
One front page after Sunday night's eight-goal fiesta preferred to note that Cristiano Ronaldo now has a better goals-per-game ratio than his great rival Lionel Messi after the 5-3 victory over Betis. But it was fitting that it will be Asensio whose name will be forever enshrined alongside Pahino, Paco Gento, Juanito, Ivan Zamorano and Guti, a who's who of club legends. Ronaldo represents the present of Real Madrid. It is becoming clearer with every passing performance that Asensio is the future.
The web version of the match report in Madrid-based daily AS simply read: "Titularisimo Asensio." A rough translation is that the 22-year-old Spain international should be starting every week. He will probably do so for La Roja in Russia this summer but still faces a struggle to get into the side at the Bernabeu.
The problem of course lies in the "BBC" -- the big brick construction that has for several seasons proven an insurmountable obstacle for many players of no small reputation. But the cracks are beginning to show.
After the game, Zidane made two comments, one of which was particularly pointed: "Bale played his game, and that's it."
Shortly before his brusque appraisal of the Welshman, the Real boss praised Asensio: "I value the game of Marco, with his two goals and participation."
Participation may have been the key word in that sentence. It was a sentiment echoed by Real Betis manager Quique Setien, a coach whose primary skill lies in creating attacking sides who score plenty of goals but are no strangers to conceding an equal number. "I almost would have preferred Zidane to play with the BBC instead of Lucas [Vazquez] and Asensio. We would have had fewer problems. They defend less."
The Asensio question is one that will come to a head sooner rather than later. At 22, a full international and with a buy-out clause of €500 million, the bench is not Asensio's natural habitat. Against Betis, Bale had 25 touches, one shot on target (and a tickle of the woodwork) while Asensio had 59 touches and made two successful tackles. Bale made none. Both of Asensio's two shots on target ended up in the back of the net.
Zidane does not come across as a Prozone manager but the evidence in front of his eyes is becoming difficult to ignore.
Neither is Asensio an impact substitute. Of his 10 goals and five assists this season, 80 percent have come when he has started. Not that he doesn't influence games in a cameo, as he displayed against PSG last week. Meanwhile, Bale has not completed 90 minutes in any competition since the 1-0 loss to Betis on Sept. 20.
Benched against PSG last week, the Welshman's face spoke volumes. But on current form the reasons for the Asensio-Bale status quo are becoming harder to justify beyond the political. The Spaniard is the team's second-highest scorer but the 13th-most-used player under Zidane this season. It is always an imperfect yardstick but given Real's struggles this season perhaps instructive nonetheless: with Asensio in the starting lineup Real have won 14, drawn three and lost just once.
Circumstance is the mother of opportunity in football and injuries to Toni Kroos and Marcelo will not do Asensio any harm. Theo Hernandez's disappointing season will not encourage Zidane to leave the former Atletico Madrid man too exposed and a left-sided player to lend a hand will be required. Without his favoured three-man midfield available, the Frenchman is likely to play a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 in upcoming Liga games. Asensio's ability to operate on the left or right or behind a striker should see his playing time increase accordingly.
In the longer-term, Bale looks the most likely of the BBC to be discarded this summer. Ronaldo and Karim Benzema will leave the Bernabeu when they decide to. The Welshman may not be afforded that luxury. He will be 29 in July and if Real can recoup most of their initial outlay it will be a difficult offer to turn down.
That may lead Florentino Perez to consider another Galactico signing but most Madrid fans would advise their president against it. He may have cost just €4m but Asensio is already worth 25 times as much in the current market. Had Barcelona managed to beat Real to his signature there would have been no need to splash out on Ousmane Dembele: Asensio would simply have walked into the Neymar-shaped void.
Zidane and Perez have to ask themselves if it is time to hand Asensio a similar promotion to reflect his status. There is little point in sending a taxi to pick up a €100m-plus player from Barajas Airport when the "CAB" is already parked at the Bernabeu.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.