Just before a gut-wrenching penalty shootout which would conclude the biggest match of the season, Lucas Vazquez enlisted himself to open the proceedings. In a squad assembled - and adequately compensated for - to step up on big occassions, Vazquez normally would have been prioritized last. Yet, he was there - ready to set the tone of the dreaded penalty shootout. On paper, no one in Real Madrid's team that night in Milan had a lower salary than Vazquez other than reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.
As Vazquez approached Jan Oblak's goal with ball in hand, Pepe was visibly uneasy, Casemiro could barely look, and Gareth Bale was cramping. Vazquez, ever-serene, spun the football on his fingertips as if he were playing Sunday footy with his cousins and local butcher. He scored, set the tone, and perhaps in one of the most underrated moments in Real Madrid's Undecima run, Vazquez capped his extraordinary season. In a strange way, the arrogance was wonderful to see. The amount of cojones!
Zidane took a leap at a critical juncture, and Vasquez rose to the occasion. The Spaniard now makes a deserved debut with Spain this summer after a tremendous breakout season.
Over the course of the season, Real Madrid's Sturm and Drang campaign painted new pictures for fans. Maybe this squad isn't far off, maybe the depth is fine, and maybe all it needs is some quick tweaks. One tweak was Zidane, who's evolved tremendously as both a tactician and motivator. Now the question is, how can the team make the next leap? How can the team win the double next season - maybe even the treble? Just what do those tweaks look like?
The emergence of Lucas Vasquez solves one problem, and Casemiro's solves another. They may not start next season on a consistent basis, but they are now proven squad players who can contribute. Vasquez provides the midfield with that extra umpf - stability on both ends of the field, strength, selflessness, and enough talent to create offensively alongside the front three. Zidane shows great interest in attacking resources who can morph into a two-way presence, which is part of the reason he prefers players like Vazquez and Isco over James.
This Real Madrid team had heroes in many shapes and forms. On many nights, it was Ronaldo who saved the day. In his absence, Bale came to the rescue with big goals. On other occassions it was Toni Kroos bossing the midfield or Keylor Navas single-handedly keeping the team competitive. This squad is fine. Outside of that core, Benzema links perfectly with the two athletic freaks alongside him, Modric is still in his prime, and the spine of the team is young.
Now it's time to improve. While Zidane's squad is riddled with game-altering killers, it also has holes. Not huge ones, but just big enough that they could use some patchwork. In the starting XI, Real Madrid could still use a more well-rounded midfielder in lieu of Casemiro, and though one of the most elite offensive wingbacks on the planet, Marcelo still struggles defensively, and Real Madrid could do with a more sound option in big games.
David Alaba - a multi-positional demon who can punish opponents all over the pitch - has had his name surface more than once over the past couple weeks. The reasoning behind signing a player like Alaba is sound, no matter the price tag. He's one of the up-and-coming elite players, and plays well beyond his age. A born-and-bred left back, Alaba can cover the center back position as well as the anchoring midfield role just fine. He's calm and composed, and Zidane would be in dreamland to land a player as versatile as Alaba. He could use him as defensive assurance over Marcelo in some games, and have him start behind Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in others.
To reiterate, Zidane would be in dreamland.
But to no surprise, Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge shot down the rumours. If Bayern let someone like Alaba slide, it would be a Kroos-level snafu of a sale.
"No player will leave Bayern Munich unless we want him to leave. We have a good relationship with Madrid, just like with Barcelona.
"But it has been common knowledge in Europe since 2008, when Franck Ribery was linked with a transfer, that we will not sell anyone against our own wish."
With those words, Rummeniegge killed two birds with one stone - one being Alaba, the other being Lewandowski. If Alaba staying put at Bayern is discouraging for Madridista's, Lewandowski staying home shouldn't be. The Polish striker is one of the best on the planet, but that he would be an upgrade over Benzema is a misconception. In Zidane's scheme, it's all about fit, and Benzema - coming off his most efficient season - slides in perfectly alongside Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
A more natural fit for this team would be Alvaro Morata. While a terrible hunch tells me Florentino Perez wants to flip the Spanish striker for a profit, he'd be foolish to do so. Real Madrid have a pocket ace in Morata, the ball is in their court, and they have a terrific opportunity to solve an occurring problem - the team gets defanged when Benzema is injured or suspended, and the false 9 experiment has failed every time. In Morata, they would have a cold-blooded big-game soldier who could do major damage-control if Benzema can't play on any given matchday. Morata is not a prolific scorer, but he has upside, and has scored big goals with Juventus over the past two seasons even if he's had plenty of struggles in between.
In an interview with AS, Spain head coach Vicente Del Bosque said that Morata could achieve the level of Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez.
"He has the potential to achieve it - that's why he's here [with the Spain squad]. The best proof that I believe in him is that he's been called up.
"Morata has very good qualities: physical strength, intelligent movement, intuition in the box, two feet, good with the ball and also in the air. He has everything to be a great striker.
"I expect hard work, movement, shots and, if there are chances, goals. He has to approach the midfielders, offer himself and provide an outlet to receive passes from his team-mates.
"He has to stretch teams, to know how to play on the shoulder of defenders. Essentially, everything you expect from a good striker."
The problem - and trust me, as silly as it sounds, it's a problem - is that Morata might be too good, too Spanish, and too good of a story. Everyone wants him to succeed, everyone knows he's talented, and everyone knows that he always steps up on big occassions. Whether it be a Clasico or a UCL knockout tie - he's ruthless. He's also from the Castilla, and the contingent of fans who've been starving for the next Raul are palpable.
Portillo, Soldado, and Negredo have all failed. The fans are thirsty for their next goal-poaching icon, and the media hounds of AS and Marca will be agenda-heavy.
Morata will use all of that noise as fuel, and he'd be right to do it. And it's not that he would necessarily outperform Benzema, but he will at least create a debate. And to be clear - in most situations these are good problems to have. But this is not your typical Marcelo / Coentrao; Benzema / Higuain strife - it's more. Morata is from Castilla. We discussed this during last night's podcast.
He has unfinished business in Real Madrid, and there are so many angles to consider. When he initially left the club in 2014, he left in search of playing time. Fans were upset with Real Madrid's decision to let Morata go, but few realized he left on his own merit - he wanted to start, and that was impossible in a team with Karim Benzema leading the line.
Things have changed now. This season, Morata went through large stretches of the season further down the depth chart behind strikers Paolo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic. Now with Real exercising their buy-back on the Spanish striker, Morata knows that he'll play just as much, if not more, than he did with Juve this season. Zidane plays with one-striker in his scheme, and he has no proper back-up for him. Plus there are always injuries, suspensions, rotations, Copa games - all those elements have to be factored in.
Morata has a lot to prove, but if he's looking at his own development, he would also have to consider that both he and the club would benefit if he was flipped to a side like Manchester United. He would play, and his hometown team would turn a profit. Though he would, presumably, get plenty of playing time in Madrid next season, he wouldn't walk into the starting lineup, and he's competing with Karim Benzema who's currently riding the peak of his career. Real Madrid will also look at Borja Mayoral coming up the ranks in a few years as some kind of assurance if they do decide to flip Morata. Benzema won't be leaving anytime soon. He's 28, and it will be two years at the very least before they could transition Morata into a starting role.
Now, having looked at multiple angles and potential worst case scenarios, it's time to dig out the truth. Morata is absolutely worth the gamble and any potential media drama that might ensue. If Real Madrid paid close attention to Juventus' season, they would be ill-advised if they didn't bring Morata back for footballing reasons. He went through a sluggish season, underperformed for good chunks of the campaign, found his form to round out the season, and then was Juventus' most impressive player in Munich despite Juventus collapsing towards the end of the match against a back-breaking Bayern. Though, it has to be noted, the collapse happened after Morata was substituted, and when Bayern tied up the aggregate, Juventus were an offensive-zero and were praying for a penalty shootout.
That he did suffer through limited minutes with Juventus this season could convince Morata to fight for a place at Real Madrid instead. Here, he only as one striker to hurdle through.
"Of course returning to Real Madrid is what I'd like best.
"This is my desire, to win with Real Madrid. But in that club there are some extraordinary players, and what I want is to play and feel important.
"Next year I'll play for the team that gives me the greatest opportunities to do that.
In an ideal world - one that probably doesn't exist - it would be unanimous: Real Madrid would bring back Morata, Marca and AS would focus on quality sincere journalism, Benzema would lead the line when healthy with the Spaniard filling in admirably before transitioning into a starter by 2018-19, and Borja Mayoral would be ready to be Morata's understudy by then.
Morata has yet to truly explode on the World stage, and there's a chance he might do so during this Summer's Euro 2016. If he does, that should seduce Real Madrid to bring him back. Though there's always a chance they'll be more seduced by dollar signs too.
The Euros will be interesting for many reasons, namely to see how both Alvaro Morata and Mateo Kovacic perform.
B) Make carving runs with the ball; and
C) Crucially dispossess players
Again, Kovacic is so versatile and so good at so many things. His one weakness lies in his shooting ability. He doesn't tend to shoot much, but that's not detrimental given the club side he plays for. Real Madrid has plenty of players who can shoot from his position, and Kovacic's ball distribution and two-way presence more than make up for it.
Pencil in the group stage game on June 21st, when two of Europe's most aesthetically-pleasing teams on paper square off. When Spain play against Croatia in that final group match, there will be four studs in the squad(s) - Lucas Vasquez, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, and Mateo Kovacic. If both teams are qualified by then, we may even seen increased playing time for Vasquez and Kovacic.
The Euros and Copa America will answer so many questions for us - who will stay, and who will go? What value will Morata and James have? Will Kovacic impress enough to climb the pecking order in Zidane's depth chart? It will be a fascinating tournament, and an even more fascinating off-season filled with key decisions the board needs to make in order to make a leap next season.