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French links set to give Varane the nod over Pepe in long-term

Injury-permitting, Raphael Varane may finally get the starting role he's been longing for under Zinedine Zidane, the man who helped bring the defender to the Bernabeu.

Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Tonight marks the start of a new era at Real Madrid as Zinedine Zidane takes charge of his first match at the Santiago Bernabeu as first team coach.

Deportivo La Coruna provide the opposition, a tough one given the Galician side's season so far, and all eyes will be on how Zidane changes a star-studded side that has limped through the season so far.

Will there be big changes? Will the alterations be minor? One thing is clear - with Madrid sitting third in the table Zidane needs to improve the fortunes of a squad blessed with talent but previously short on confidence and drive. Whether that comes through a change in personnel in the starting eleven or changes elsewhere remains to be seen - until 20:30 tonight.

Much of the press focus has been on where Zidane will tinker with things. Eyes have been glues to training sessions at the club's Valdebebas base and starting elevens in practice matches have been noted down. Will the ‘BBC' continue to lead the attack? Will it be Isco or James Rodriguez? What about Casemiro in the middle instead of an under-performing Toni Kroos?

Another big call for Zidane to make, and one previous coaches before him have also been drawn to, is whether he opts for fellow countryman Raphael Varane alongside captain Sergio Ramos in the heart of the defence, or whether he goes for the more experienced head in Pepe.

It is a dilemma Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez all had. While Varane looked to enjoy continued development as arguably the best young centre back in the world, Pepe continued to give his coaches a welcome selection headache. He was not getting any younger but he was not going away.

Ramos' starting role is a given, especially being the club captain, but the battle to partner him in defence is nicely poised. Benitez seemingly couldn't make his mind up, with both players making ten starts each so far this season. While Varane looked set for a regular starting role this season after many false starts, a new contract for Pepe at the start of the campaign has resulted in a continued battle for a starting role.

An injury has left Varane on the bench since November's slender victory over Shakhtar Donetsk but the Frenchman has slowly returned to fitness and looks set to be the man for Madrid's latest coach.

The French pair have a close-knot history. Not only do they share nationality but Zidane was key in bringing Varane to the Spanish capital from Lens. While Manchester United were eager to sign the youngster, Madrid president Florentino Perez instructed Zidane to personally call Varane and lure him to the Bernabeu. It worked.

"I played an active role in the transfer [of Varane]," Zidane told French radio station RMC. "He is a quality player and has an incredible future ahead of him."

"I have watched plenty of Varane and he is like Blanc, fast, intelligent and he is a big player also," he added.

High praise indeed from a player who won it all, and played alongside one of the best-ever European defenders in Blanc.

That was in 2011 and five years on Zidane now has the chance to coach the man he helped bring to Madrid. He isn't likely to turn down the opportunity of taking him to the next level in playing him week-in, week-out.

Varane's qualities are undoubted but the question remains as to how Pepe seemingly sitting on the bench so long as the Frenchman and Ramos are fit and ready will impact on the squad as a whole. The Portuguese international is one of the longest-serving Blancos players and has a big role to play in the dressing room.

Some question the former Porto man's attitude on the pitch, especially when things aren't going his, or his side's way, but Pepe has a strong influence amongst the rest of the players, similar to that of Alvaro Arbeloa. Zidane will have to carefully balance the scales to ensure that positive energy stays in tact off the pitch.

It is to Pepe's credit that he has continued to cause a selection headache for his coaches. Injuries to other players have helped keep his appearance numbers high but it a sign of his character that he penned a new deal last summer when he looked set for the Madrid bench and with other top European clubs linked with his services.

Spanish sports newspaper AS reported on Friday that Zidane showcased a starting eleven of Keylor; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Modric Isco; Bale Benzema and Cristiano in his final training session ahead of Saturday night's match. If that proves to be correct the absence of Varane looks solely down to a lack of fitness rather than a preference for Pepe.

Competition is healthy and the 32-year-old defender will certainly keep his younger competitor on his toes. When Varane is fit and ready to return, however, he looks set to be the man for Zidane - his countryman who helped bring him to the Santiago Bernabeu.

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