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Converting chances has been the biggest problem for Real Madrid this season, over the course of the two draws with Valencia and Levante; Los Blancos took over 40 shots and converted just three of them.
Sunday’s meeting with Real Sociedad saw Borja Mayoral handed a rare start and he scored with his very first chance.
It was the sort of killer instinct that Zinedine Zidane’s team has lacked in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sunday’s trip to the Anoeta proved that, in Mayoral, Real Madrid have a readymade replacement for Alvaro Morata.
The 2016/17 campaign was the most prolific of Morata’s career; he netted 20 goals in all competitions with 15 of them coming in La Liga. His contributions were vital to the club’s successful domestic campaign, yet he was never going to be a starter at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
When Chelsea were willing to offer a package that would eventually reach £75 million, it was an absolute no-brainer decision to allow the former Juventus forward to leave, especially with Morata himself keen to be first-choice elsewhere.
There were very few sceptics within Valdebebas when the deal was announced, although at that time many close to the club were under the assumption that a certain Kylian Mbappe would be arriving. This did not pan out in the manner Florentino Perez expected; as such Los Blancos were left in a situation where not a single striker was signed to replace Morata.
This was true on paper; however the returning Mayoral was quickly forgotten following a difficult loan spell with Wolfsburg.
It is worth remembering just how high hopes were for the 20-year-old prior to his Bundesliga excursion, he was seen as the club’s answer to Marcus Rashford and it was only the sheer squad depth and quality of said depth that prevented Zidane from giving him more first-team chances.
Understandably expectations have been lowered after his spell in Germany, yet with Ronaldo suspended, Karim Benzema injured and Gareth Bale not fully confident of leading the line through the middle, Zidane turned to a Castilla product, an option he has never ignored throughout his time in charge.
Morata was integral to Cristiano’s late surge
Morata’s role last season was that of a player who could take chances when they fell to him, especially when he was brought on as a substitute. It is also worth noting that the 2016/17 season was the first full campaign under the Frenchman’s stewardship and also the first in which Ronaldo was working under a significantly micromanaged fitness regime.
This plan saw the Portuguese forward rested far more often than he ever had been before in order for his body to recover and be fresh for when the season reached its climax. It could hardly have worked out any better with Ronaldo’s best form coming in April and May of 2017 as he took the Champions League knockout-stage by storm.
What was integral to this plan working though was actually Morata. For all those minor La Liga matches where Ronaldo was given a rest, the 24-year-old Spaniard had to come into the starting line-up and deliver. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
People often don’t realise just how crucial this was, Morata was talented enough to take the pressure off the veteran forward, a luxury not afforded to Lionel Messi at Barcelona as he struggled at the back end of the campaign after being forced to make up for Los Cules’ lack of quality in midfield.
Morata’s departure ensured that plans for Ronaldo’s fitness were unclear ahead of the 2017/18 season. Whilst Marco Asensio is quite fantastic, he cannot deliver on his own at such a tender age, it isn’t fair to expect that from him. Bale’s fitness is also a long-term concern whilst Benzema has injury issues of his own, although they aren’t too severe.
The real acid test
Having failed to deliver in the Bundesliga, few had faith that Mayoral could perform in a way that allows for the Portuguese forward to be rested.
Real Madrid will always score goals, the start to the current season is a mere blip in that regard, the real acid test for Mayoral is whether or not he can be consistent enough to truly take on Morata’s most effective role, being able to facilitate Ronaldo’s resting programme.
The hard first step has been taken by the young striker; he scored on his first start of the season and made the team stronger. One of the hardest things for young players to do is to seize their chance and ensure they are given a second.
Zidane is a fan of Mayoral’s abilities, he is a confident finisher and he is quick, an attribute that allows him to play on the shoulder of the last defender. What the former Castilla coach now needs to be convinced of is just how much he can rely on the youngster.
Needs to show hunger and desire
Mayoral has to continue to take chances; he has to be effective when called upon from the bench. One of the memorable features of Morata’s second spell in the Spanish capital was how whenever he came from the bench, he used to have several shots on the opposition goal.
He attempted to make a difference and often got his reward with a goal, the current Chelsea centre-forward was desperate to force his way into the first-team and saw every minute on the pitch as a chance to show Zidane just what he could do.
If Mayoral has the same hunger then he will be just fine, there are no concerns with him in terms of ability, but if he can prove to the coach that he can take Morata’s place and allow for Ronaldo to be rested, he will be absolutely invaluable to Real Madrid’s season.
If he does well, he will be rewarded
Furthermore it is a selfless role that will eventually be rewarded. Scouts watch Los Blancos in the knowledge that it is the absolute pinnacle of world football, if you can succeed and score goals in that environment, it is clear a player has something about them.
Morata’s work last season was rewarded by a hugely expensive transfer to Chelsea, where he is now the undisputed main striker and if Mayoral can replace him and do the work he did last term to the same standard, it seems likely that at some point he too will be rewarded in such a manner.
It is a win-win for all involved.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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