Mariano Diaz's ruthless scoring streak could put Karim Benzema out of a job
It wasn't the first impression the Santiago Bernabeu had of Mariano Diaz. The home fans on Wednesday had already seen their most recent addition develop from their under-18 side to Real Madrid Castilla before featuring in the first team under Zinedine Zidane.
Those memories were peppered with nostalgia, given extra weight, and then a 21-goal season in Ligue 1 had given them a chance to miss him. On Wednesday against Roma, fans got to assess for themselves whether the dispatches from France they were getting last season were true. Was Mariano the striker Real Madrid needed and could rely on to get the goals that Cristiano Ronaldo had left behind?
The early answer is, very much, yes. Mariano came on with 17 minutes to go for a few reasons: to give Gareth Bale a rest, to ease the 25-year-old back into action and to end the constant questions about when he would appear at every news conference since he arrived.
Mariano was about to turn his cameo into a chance to take centre stage. He curled the most ambitious and well-taken goal of the game into the top corner after spending the previous 16 minutes thinking of the best way to announce himself.
For a long time during the summer, Real Madrid were convinced they didn't need a new striker to put pressure on Karim Benzema and to contribute in meaningful situations -- or at least that was he party line.
Julen Lopetegui had spent the summer convincing his strikers to stay, in fact. Raul de Tomas said the Real Madrid manager tried to convince him to stick it out and Borja Mayoral says he was assured that if he stayed, he would get minutes.
It was late in the summer, three days before the window closed to be precise, when Mayoral was told that he needed to find a new club. His news conference with Levante after he decided on the Valencian outfit was tinged with regret that he hadn't listened to his gut and left Real Madrid earlier in the window when options could be assessed more thoroughly and teams had more time to get involved in the bidding.
Sevilla had launched a late bid for Mariano and 500 kilometres north in Madrid, they saw an opportunity. Florentino Perez loves nothing more than a striker with both goals and Real Madrid in his DNA. With Mariano, he had both.
Fernando Morientes, who scored a century of goals in white and is made up of the same DNA, can see the quality Mariano brings and is convinced that he is the player Real Madrid needed.
"Benzema is a 10 who moves in the middle, but Madrid didn't have the type of pure central striker that reminds me of my time," he said after the signing of the attacker. "He is the player in the area that doesn't forgive."
The implication was that Real Madrid's strikers were letting opponents off the hook too often, with Benzema being the biggest culprit.
The French striker has regressed back to the player he was for long and frustrating patches last season. Against Athletic Bilbao, the entire attack sputtered forward, but Benzema's lack of presence up front was particularly damaging to the overall threat they posed. He was getting into good positions in those earliest games, but he was outperforming his expected goals by 2.11, according to Understat. Simply put, he was finishing at a much higher rate than expected.
As that game ticked on in Bilbao last weekend, Benzema started to drift out to the left and the right in an effort to get himself into the game, or at least land an assist in order to justify his place in the team despite saying previously that he would be spending more time in the box.
Maybe the myth of Mariano has grown since he left the Santiago Bernabeu, but a goal every 53 minutes will do that. On Wednesday, just as the second half kicked off, he emerged from the bench to warm up. The Bernabeu applauded him and he gave them the same back. You sensed there was a burgeoning relationship between the fans and their prodigal son.
He has always said it is his home and even when he was at Lyon, there was always a feeling that he was just in France on a season-long layover, waiting for Real Madrid to have a look at their options before calling him back.
Espanyol are next up on Saturday, and while they beat Madrid last season when the league was well and truly out of Los Blancos' reach, they previously went 22 games without being beaten by the Barcelona-based club. There will be goals, and Mariano might start as Lopetegui keeps an eye on Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.
He took the No. 7 shirt as an act of defiance and a vote of confidence in himself upon arrival. He's ready to create a legacy for himself, and if his start is how he means to go on, Benzema might be out of a job before long.