IS IT FINALLY TIME FOR LUCAS VAZQUEZ TO BE GIVEN THE SPOTLIGHT IN THIS NEW ERA FOR REAL MADRID?

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A Galactico: an exciting, colossal, all-conquering Real Madrid superstar playing their part in a formidable, attacking side. Los Blancos teams of the 1950s, featuring Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás, amongst others, were the original Galacticos and serial major trophy winners, but the club’s current president, Florentino Pérez, has constructed his own dream teams during his two spells in charge at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

During his first period at the helm at the turn of the 21st century, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham were just some of the high-profile names added to what was an already impressive squad. Years later after he took over again, from Vicente Boluda in 2009, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo top a stunning list of transfers.

Very few homegrown players have been able to nail down a place in sides that Perez has presided over. Particularly during his first years in charge, he was famous for influencing which players featured more regularly according to their marketability and celebrity status, not because of their suitability to a specific role – Francisco Pavón and Javier Portillo were excellent players in their youth but rarely featured for the first team after a tour of Asia in 2003 showed that they were of little interest to the club’s worldwide fanbase. In the same period, Claude Makélélé also lost his place in the side and was sold to Chelsea because Beckham was used as a defensive midfielder to accommodate Luís Figo.

In recent times, that has been less of an occurrence but let it be a measure of right-midfielder Lucas Vázquez’s importance amongst a squad of star names. He has played in 88 of Real’s LaLiga games during the last three seasons and has won nine major trophies, including three UEFA Champions League titles.

In June 2015, the 27-year-old was sold to RCD Espanyol after a successful loan spell, having only played for Real’s Castilla team, but Pérez quickly activated the buy-back clause in his contract that summer and brought him back to the Spanish capital – there was a time that he was thought to be heading on an equal trajectory to Jesé Rodriguez, but those days are long gone.

Even after his return from Catalonia, Real, managed by Rafa Benítez at the time, appeared to doubt his worth. He did not make his first-team debut until the following September, ironically against Espanyol in a 6-0 thrashing, and his first start came a week later in a 1-0 defeat of Granada; his first goal came on 30 December 2015 against Real Sociedad in a 3-1 home win. After Zidane took over as manager, he finished the La Liga campaign with a run of three goals, against Eibar, Villarreal and Rayo Vallecano, and an assist against Getafe.

He appeared seven times during Real’s run to the 2016 Champions League title under the Frenchman – the first of a hat-trick of successes. However, he did not start in the final against Atlético Madrid, but he came on in the second half for Karim Benzema and scored his penalty in his side’s shootout victory.

The 2016-17 season was by far his most impressive; he was trusted to start the UEFA Super Cup final against Sevilla. His cross was headed in by Sergio Ramos to take the tie to extra-time, before Real came out as 3-2 victors, and he was soon handed a bumper five-year deal – Pérez, Zidane and the Bernabéu faithful were gradually beginning to appreciate his worth. Like Casemiro, he struggled for playing time under Benítez but came into the side regularly during the second half of the season to make an instant impression.

He won a penalty in the 2017 Club World Cup final against Kashima Antlers, allowing Ronaldo to make the score 2-2 from the spot after Gabu Shibasaki’s brace had put the Japanese side ahead – the Portuguese completed his hat-trick in extra-time to earn Real a nervous 4-2 victory.

Vázquez made 33 LaLiga appearances as the title returned to the Bernabéu from Barcelona, making nine assists. He was also a regular as Real became the first team to retain the Champions League title – he played ten times, including in both semi-final legs against Atlético, but did not feature in the final against Juventus.

For most of his career he has gone relatively unnoticed, because of his lack of goals and introverted persona. He is pragmatic, surprisingly quick, clever on the ball and versatile. Just last season, he played on the right side of a front three, on the right-hand side of a flat midfield four and even at right-back against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final following injuries to Dani Carvajal and Nacho Fernández; he has also featured on the left side of the midfield.

In February, during a spell of regular playing time, he scored two goals and made five assists in four games against Real Sociedad, Real Betis, CD Leganes and Alavés. Against Leganes he was particularly impressive: he finished from the edge of the area to equalise after Unai Bustinza had put the Pepineros in front, before setting up Casemiro, after a quick passing move, to put Zidane’s side 2-1 ahead on the way to a 3-1 win.

When compared to other notable wide players during the 2017-18 LaLiga season, it is easy to see why Julen Lopetegui should regard him as highly important. He was dispossessed less, took fewer bad touches and boasted a higher pass completion rate per 90 minutes than Koke, Gonçalo Guedes and Ousmane Dembélé – it is clear to see that he is comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces and good at efficiently recycling possession.

He poses a different kind of threat to his attacking Real teammates: for example, he made more blocks, tackles and interceptions per game than Marco Asensio, whilst weighing in with more assists – these figures show that he is better defensively and in transition than his Spain teammate.

To get Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos in a three-man midfield and Benzema and Bale together in attack, Isco, Asensio and Vázquez are rivals for the final place in Real’s forward line. Without Ronaldo, Benzema will be able to star in a more traditional striker’s role as opposed to the deep-lying position that he has occupied in recent years and Bale is notoriously excellent in behind his marker, so Vázquez would appear to be the best option to provide balance.

He is also a good option from the substitutes’ bench. His energy and pace makes him dangerous in the latter stages against tired defenders – after Ronaldo and Mateo Kovačić’s departures, few members of Real’s squad can match his athleticism.

He is unlikely to be needed at right-back again after the signing of Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad, but Lopetegui can be comfortable knowing that he can fill in anywhere on the right side of the team. There is no reason why he could not be a success played behind the striker, either – he is able to receive the ball with his back to goal and create a chance out of nothing, something Real’s forwards must regularly do against lesser opposition determined to sit deep and grind out a result.

He was a late substitute in this week’s Super Cup victory against Atletico – Diego Costa inspired the Rojiblancos to a 4-2 victory in extra-time after Ramos had put Real 2-1 ahead on the hour mark. In the early stages, Real struggled to retain possession and were regularly caught out trying to play out from the back; Raphaël Varane and Marcelo were forced to uncharacteristically put the ball out of play deep in their own half when one of the midfielders should have given them an option for a pass. Vázquez would, perhaps, have been a better choice to start, because of his willingness to receive the ball in danger and ability to use possession effectively, over Asensio, who was subbed off for Modrić on the hour mark.

Plenty of LaLiga and Champions League teams are able to match the combination of pace and power that Costa, Antoine Griezmann and Thomas Lemar boasted to press Real high up the pitch – Villarreal spring to mind after the signings of Gerard Moreno and Karl Toko Ekambi this summer. Ernesto Valverde and Barcelona utilised a 4-4-2 system last season that saw the attacking players defend high up the pitch and play at a high tempo; Vázquez’s defensive knowhow and ability to play as a makeshift right-back when his team is under heavy pressure would make him a sensible choice to start if the same happens again.

Lopetegui rarely selected Vázquez whilst in charge of Spain but he did feature in La Roja’s last four friendlies before the World Cup, including a 6-1 drubbing of Argentina. He was picked in the final 23-man squad to travel to Russia and played against Portugal and Iran under Fernando Hierro, after Lopetegui was sacked following the announcement of his agreement to take over at the Bernabeu.

Last season, Zidane’s Real started poorly in their attempt to defend their LaLiga title – a shock 2-1 loss against Girona headlined a series of poor results before Christmas that left the Frenchman sweating over his job and Barcelona near-certain champions. Most fans argued that the downturn in results was because of an overly-cavalier and arrogant approach, which was also Benítez’s downfall – Vázquez is far from fashionable, but his honesty and work ethic would help Lopetegui avoid a similar outcome, particularly when facing notorious counter-attacking teams like Athletic Club and Betis.

In the absence of Ronaldo and a Galactico replacement Lopetegui will, perhaps, find that a pragmatic style is the order of the day, which suits Vázquez’s attributes. There are very few players in the world that can match Ronaldo’s goal contributions, but Vázquez can supplement Bale and Benzema and make the deficit much, much smaller this season, whilst being a help at the other end of the pitch.

BY RYAN PLANT