Asensio’s back! Real Madrid winger’s return could solve Zidane’s attacking problems
FEATURES & OPINIONS
REAL MADRID V EIBAR
The 24-year-old looked set to miss the entire season with a serious knee injury but he is now fit to play a pivotal role in the Liga title race
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The pain was almost too much for Marco Asensio to take.
He pulled his shirt up towards his mouth and bit down hard as he tried to supress his anguished cries.
Just moments earlier, he had been shouting with joy after drawing Real Madrid level in their pre-season friendly against Arsenal in Maryland.
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Then, an innocuous collision with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saw him land awkwardly on his left knee.
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Madrid’s crestfallen coach Zinedine Zidane could barely watch as Asensio was stretchered off the field in tears and admitted to reporters afterwards, “It looks bad.”
And it was.
Asensio had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus. He would be out of action for at least nine months. His season was over before it had even started.
Or so it seemed.
On Saturday morning, Madrid announced their squad for their first La Liga fixture back after the coronavirus-enforced suspension of football in Spain, against Eibar.
Eden Hazard’s inclusion drew most of the attention but Asensio’s return could be just as important for Zidane.
It’s easy to forget just how big an impact the winger made at the Santiago Bernabeu when he returned from a successful loan spell at Espanyol in the summer of 2016.
Asensio scored on his first appearances in five different competitions for the club: the UEFA Super Cup, La Liga, the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and the Supercopa de Espana.
What made his success even sweeter for Madrid fans was the fact that the versatile forward should have been playing for bitter rivals Barcelona.
It was the Blaugrana who had first approached Mallorca about signing the Palma native. Barca even met the islanders’ €4.5m asking price and Asensio reportedly even travelled to Catalunya to go house-hunting.
However, when Mallorca asked that the money be paid up front in one instalment, the deal collapsed. It was at this point that tennis legend, Mallorca native and massive Madrid fan Rafael Nadal intervened.
“Rafa phoned (Real president) Florentino Perez and told him that they could not let me escape,” Asensio later told AS.
“In the winter, my agent called me to say Real Madrid were interested. Then Florentino called before a game to tell me I was going to be a Real Madrid player.
“Everything happened in one day: we travelled to Madrid, signed the contract, visited the Bernabeu and we returned to Mallorca to finish the season.
“It was all fast and intense, but the satisfaction was huge.”
For Madrid, though, it was even more satisfying watching Asensio produce a stunning strike in both legs of the 5-1 aggregate rout of Barcelona in the 2017 Supercopa de Espana.
By that point, Perez felt he had a new superstar on his hands. He wasn’t the only one either.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018, many pundits argued that Asensio was the Portuguese’s natural replacement.
Such talk didn’t sit comfortably with Asensio, and it showed.
He netted just once in La Liga in 2018-19. His game, of course, has never been solely about goals but he struggled in every aspect of his play.
Of course, his dip in form could be partially linked to Zidane’s departure as coach and the decision to replace the Frenchman with Julen Lopetegui, and then Santiago Solari.
Under both, Asensio was primarily used on the left flank – to fill the void left by Ronaldo – but it is not his best position.
“I can be more decisive on the right flank or in the middle,” he told Marca. “If I play more on the right or in the middle, I have more chances to be decisive and get more involved.”
His agent, Horacio Gaggioli, also made a valid point when he argued that it is difficult for any player to shine in a side playing as poorly as Real were in 2018-19.
“The whole team dropped their level, not just Marco,” he told ESPN. “Maybe there was more a focus on Asensio as he had shown such a high level before (2017-18), there was lots of expectation, and it has not worked out.
“But on an individual level it is not easy if the team is not playing well. It does not matter who you are, whether you are Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona.
“But Marco has played well with Spain, has become a regular with the senior international team. Now, he is just thinking about next season (2019-20), and winning things.”
Asensio’s injury, then, was most unfortunately timed. He was looking sharp in pre-season and, with Zidane having returned as coach at the tail end of the 2018-19 season, set to play a major role in Real’s campaign.
Happily, he now has a chance to do just that. We may be in the middle of June but Madrid still have 11 Liga games to play – big ones too, with the Blancos sitting just two points behind leaders Barcelona.
With Hazard now fit to take his place on the left wing, Asensio is likely to be deployed on his preferred flank as Zidane looks to provide No.9 Karim Benzema with the kind of quality support and service he has been starved of all season.
However, there is even speculation that the 24-year-old will also get a chance to shine through the middle, given the intensive match schedule is likely to result in Benzema, who is now 32, being regularly rotated.
He certainly has the ability to play the Frenchman’s selfless role up front. In the final season of Zidane’s first tenure, Asensio created more chances in all competitions than any other Madrid player (77), including Ronaldo (54) and Benzema (63), while he also chipped in with 11 goals and seven assists.
Of course, he will face stiff competition for a starting spot from Gareth Bale and the outstanding young Brazilian wingers Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior.
However, if pressure may have been a problem for Asensio in the past, it certainly won’t be now. He is just happy to be back playing again.
“I feel very good,” he told his club’s official TV channel earlier this week. “My adaptation has been good. The knee is responding well and the truth is that I am physically very well.
“I am back on the training pitch with my team-mates and that is the important thing. The wait was worth it.”
It should be for Madrid too