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Four Observations: Including Raul’s Slighted Balon D’or

On Raul’s peak, Marcos (& Diego) Llorente, and Aleix Febas

FUSSBALL: CL 00/01, REAL MADRID - FC BAYERN MUENCHEN 0:1 Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

These observations - where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts - are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Four observations

Raul’s Balon D’or snub

I am that guy, who points out the imperfections of a seemingly perfect night. During a momentous occasion, right before Real Madrid trounced Granada at home, Gento handed over the Balon D’or trophy to Ronaldo, who then showed off the glossy piece to the fans in the Bernabeu. It was a happy occasion. Ronaldo placed the trophy on a table, right next to three other Balon D’or trophies of his.

In many ways it was a symbolic moment. There is not much more even Cristiano Ronaldo can ask for. For a man not only known for his excellence on the pitch, but his excellent work rate and drive for greatness - that moment channeled it all. His career, all that it has built up to, bore all its fruits Saturday morning. It was his fourth Balon D’or. To soak it all in, there were legends - and idols - cheering him on, the Bernabeu was in appreciation, his teammates applauding, and himself being the center of it all. All this, by the way, on the back of leading his team to a Champions League title and European Championship.

But not all of us perceive everything the same way. For one man, it was all about recognition, for others, it was about support and pride, and for sleazy journalists like me at home on their couch, it was about getting slapped in the face with resurfaced memories that didn’t make sense.

Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (OG), Luis Figo, and Michael Owen (through no fault of his own) - all previous Balon D’or winners - stood alongside Ronaldo. Of the four legends, Owen was the only one who didn’t win his Balon D’or with Real Madrid. He also arguably didn’t deserve to win his at all.

To be clear, having Owen there is a nice gesture, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. He was well liked at the Bernabeu, even if his stint here was brief and efficient. He scored 13 goals in the 04/05 season - the best ratio of any striker on the team in a bizarrely top-heavy side which also included Raul and Ronaldo; while Fernando Morientes was out on loan. Again, I’m just about to project unto you some suppressed memories from 2001, when Michael Owen won the Balon D’or with his time with Liverpool. It has nothing to do with who Michael Owen was, or what he did with Real Madrid as a player.

Raul had a long career when all was done and dusted. Not all of it was good, and not all of it was bad. Some of it was awkward, and some of it was heroic. If you were to zoom out and look at it linearly, it would be something like this: Raul breaks out onto the scene as a teenager after shattering goal-scoring records in the youth system, becomes deeply adored after Butragueno passes the torch to him, becomes virtually unplayable for about four seasons after, starts growing his hair in 2003 before suffering a dramatic, inexplicable, and sharp decline for about six years, then becomes a respectable contributor again later in his career.

But look - Raul of 1999-2003 was something truly special. It was a travesty he didn’t win the Balon D’or in 2001 (his best shot at it). It was a season where Real Madrid won the league, Raul scored the most goals (besting Rivaldo for the Pichichi award for the 2nd time in three seasons), and also led the Champions League in scoring while being a huge part of Real Madrid’s run to the Champions League semi-final.

And hey, Michael Owen was a fine, fine player. Perhaps overhyped, as any English star typically is, but he was certainly great. The year he snagged Raul’s Balon D’or (again, through no fault of his own), Liverpool won a treble. Not the treble, just a treble. If you’re seriously questioning why I’m downplaying a treble, it’s because the three trophies that Liverpool, its fans, and media widely adopted as a successful treble were: League Cup, UEFA Cup, and FA Cup.

You read that correct.

Michael Owen led the team with 24 goals (8 less than Raul), to three titles that didn’t include the Champions League or league title. In fact, Liverpool didn’t even play in the Champions League until the 2001-2002 season.

But we know certain truths better than any trophy can illustrate. That’s why we celebrate Raul in today’s observations.

To be transparent, I actually tend to get emotional when I look back to the turn of the century. Those years in the Club’s history are pure nostalgic gold for me. Raul in particular was responsible for gravitating me towards the sport and make me love football the way I do today. His intelligence on the pitch during his prime was on another plane, and particularly in that 2000-2001 season when Figo arrived, the chemistry between Raul and Luis was phenomenal. You could bank on that combination conjuring goals for you game-in game-out.

Poor Diego

Diego Llorente has had two consecutive, and really unfortunate, games in La Liga. After being completely dismantled at the Sanchez Pizjuan before the winter break, Malaga came into 2017 with a new manager in Marcelo Romero. Sunday evening’s loss away to Celta Vigo wasn’t on the same post-apocalyptic level of doom Malaga went through in Sevilla, but it was a complete dismantling none-the-less.

And a rough day for Llorente, to boot. He started on the bench, but was summoned within 12 minutes. Miguel Torres hobbled off with an injury and Llorente came in. It was the passing of the torch - from matchstick to flamethrower. Within 40 seconds of entering, Llorente was in the fire himself. Guidetti snatched the flamethrower and turned it back the other way. He first took a shot - point blank range - and had it blocked by Llorente’s hand in the box. No call, though it probably should’ve been. Within milliseconds, Guidetti had a chance to shoot again thanks to a fortuitous bounce, but Llorente pulled him down in the box - again, probably getting away without a penalty call.

And it’s not that Llorente had a bad game overall, to be sure - it’s that he had unlucky moments that will be remembered more than his five successful clearances and four interceptions. Case-in-point, he had some terrible luck when Malaga conceded their 2nd goal. After providing a goal-saving challenge, he held onto the ball for far too long, and Iago Aspas picked his pocket.

Marcos, the more in-form Llorente

There is nothing new about this, but, Marcos Llorente is just fine at Alaves, and always worth waking up for on a Sunday morning. Alaves as a whole have been one of the low-key storylines of this season. From Segunda to mid-table, they lie 12th place with a top-5 (!!) defense. They’re comfortable and patient in putting numbers behind the ball, and offensively, they’re very good at picking and choosing when to go forward.

Llorente has been a huge part of this. His defensive positioning and awareness are beyond his age, and his distribution is always spot-on. He could improve on playing more vertical, as he tends to play the safe pass rather than the home-run ball, but those are things he’ll surely add to his game over time.

As is always the case when Alaves surrender possession, Llorente’s distribution was subdued upon the trip to San Mames earlier Sunday morning. But Llorente does a bit of everything, including a very important dispossession of Iker Muniain in the first half after a criminal giveaway from Carnero from the back. Moments like that are permeated into Llorente’s season throughout. Keeping tabs on his progress has been a joy.

Some notes from Castilla

Aleix Febas is quickly turning into one of my favourite prospects. He seemingly adds something new to his game every week. Fans always ask me the question - will Febas make it? And how can he, in a team with so many attacking midfielders already?

He’s three years - at the very least - away, so he has time. But he’s also accelerating his timeline like a snowball with impressive performances week-in week-out. He’s been Castilla’s best player this season by miles. Yes, he can play as an attacking midfielder, dribbling his way through defenders high up the pitch like a slippery eel before creating havoc, but he’s also added so many box-to-box elements to his game that he could easily evolve into a deeper role if needed.

In Saturday’s win over Real Sociedad B, Febas shared the central midfield duties with Valverde and was everywhere. Of particular significance was the way he retained possession deep in his own half without sacrificing energy going forward. This kid has a bright future ahead of him.

Just a couple more observations from Castilla, to round out this column:

  • This was the 2nd match in a row where Enzo really improved on releasing the ball quicker. As Sam Sharpe and I have discussed on several Castilla podcasts, Enzo needs to channel his flair and exaggerated emphasis on aesthetic football into more productivity. It’s clear he listened to us. He also did other things that pleasantly surprised me, like hounding defenders, and dropping deep to retain possession. Good stuff, Enzo. More of that please.
  • This was one of Tejero’s better games too. When La Real’s B team (they are very good, by the way), were pinning Castilla back, Tejero was the one putting in last second challenges and blocking shots. Still, he needs to flesh out some silly things out of his game, like dribbling his way out of the way back and giving away possession cheaply.

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