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Kovacic settling into life at Madrid slowly but surely

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The Croatian midfielder has yet to provide any stand-out performances but, with time on his side, he looks set to be an important cog in Rafa Benitez's squad.

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

As far as shock summer signings go, that of Mateo Kovacic to Real Madrid was certainly up there when Los Blancos forked out £32 million plus extras to haul the Croatian away from Inter Milan in August.

Madrid's move for the midfielder had largely gone unnoticed in the Spanish press, something that doesn't happen too often, while the price to bring the Croatian international to Spain from Italy took plenty by surprise. That he was a largely unknown talent outside of Serie A and hadn't exactly hammered down his starting role at the San Siro only added to the curiosity.

His move was the biggest Madrid could muster over the pre-season given their failure to capture David De Gea from Manchester United. The deal to bring Danilo to the club from Porto was confirmed last season and relatively low-key deals to re-sign Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro and Kiko Casilla hardly caught the imagination of Madrid fans.

That president Florentino Perez had given the green light to sign the young midfielder when players such as Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, James Rodriguez and Casemiro were already fighting for starting roles raised questions. It certainly wasn't a Perez-type signing. Big money it may have been but a big name it was not.

The only real answer to come from the deal was that Rafa Benitez was being backed. Benitez knew Kovacic well from his days coaching Napoli and it was well known that the new Blancos coach wanted to rotate his squad. After seeing Modric and Kroos suffer towards the back end of last season his answer was to bring in extra legs for the middle of the park. The fans may have been crying out for a striker or De Gea but Benitez had other priorities.

Perhaps the true value of Kovacic's arrival will not be known until the ‘business end' of the campaign but while the price tag will still be questioned and Madridistas show concern over Benitez's stewardship of the squad, the Croatian has at least showed some positives on the outings he's been handed since arriving at the club.

The 21-year-old may not come into his coach's thinking for a starting role in the big matches but he has been handed his fair share of opportunities so far - and has taken them.

An injury before the Champions League clash at Paris Saint-Germain aside, Kovacic has been regularly called upon by Benitez, be it as a starter or from the bench. Without being the star performer in any of the nine La Liga matches he has played in, he has gotten about his work in a manner that has at least led to the majority of Madrididtas warming to him.

That he started in the victory at Athletic Club showcased Benitez's trust in the midfielder and he passed a tough test with flying colours. A full 90 minutes at Shakhtar last week, his first in a Madrid shirt, plus a start at Eibar at the weekend cemented him as one to rely on for Benitez. This is a player who will feature heavily in his coach's rotation.

The problem for Madrid may be where his best position is. It was a problem Inter had and failed to find an answer from. Kovacic has played at No.10 and shone without really making the position his own, while doing the same in a holding role, spraying the ball around the pitch but not having the sufficient defensive abilities to make him a regular starter at the very top level - at least not yet.

With Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez all likely to get the nod to start when they're fully fit, Kovacic's best fit at the Bernabeu looks to be further back, with countryman Modric, Kroos and Casemiro competition in that area.

The former Inter man will offer something for the present and the future of Real Madrid. While the club tried and failed to fill Xabi Alonso's boots with what they thought was a like-for-like player in Asier Illarramendi, Los Blancos are seemingly trying to replicate with more success when it comes to Modric and Kovacic. Madrid's current midfield maestro from Croatia certainly has plenty more miles on the clock but Kovacic arrives as a young player with a similar playing style to his countryman and a player he already knows well.

"I'm still very young," Kovacic told the official Madrid website on his presentation. "I'm sure that I'll learn a lot from my team-mates in the dressing room, as I still have room for improvement. I hope to be able to show out on the pitch all that I'm capable of producing. There'll also be difficult moments, no doubt. There are terrific players in this team and my task now is to show how good I am."

With self-confidence as well as quality, Kovacic seems more likely to succeed where Illarramendi failed in the Spanish capital, but Madrid will also be looking for short-term, as well as long-term gains. The 21-year-old is not simply one for the future.

His performances so far since joining the club have showed that he can mix it with Madrid both domestically and on the continent. He may still be far from regular first-team material in the biggest matches but he showed to be suitable cover in midfield when Benitez looks to rotate. With time on his side, Kovacic only looks set to get better.