Football is a sport that lives and breathes heated, polemic views, emotions and reactions. At no club is that more true than the ultra-successful, ultra-demanding Real Madrid.
To drop two points against bitter rivals Atletico Madrid, then, when Los Rojiblancos were playing with 10 men at the end of a week in which Carlo Ancelotti’s men spotted Liverpool a two-goal lead before thrashing them 5-2 in the Champions League — thus massively raising expectations — is, for Madrid supporters, going to feel about as enjoyable as drinking a pint of warm saltwater. There will now be an absolute deluge of those heated, polemic, not necessarily sensible opinions bandied about (until the next Clasico, on Thursday, takes over) with the main theme being that Los Blancos categorically “tossed the league away” by dropping points to Diego Simeone’s increasingly robust team.
First of all: nonsense. A seven-point gap to leaders Barcelona (potentially 10 if they win at Almeria on Sunday) is uncomfortable for the reigning champions and a challenging tally to overhaul, but with a series of three Clasicos on the horizon (two in which Madrid can inflict collateral damage to Barcelona’s confidence in the Copa del Rey semifinals and one in LaLiga where they can close the deficit), in no way is this title race decided.
Second, there was — amid the baying noise, the polemic about a horribly misjudged red card for Angel Correa and the deflation at dropping points — a true “hallelujah!” moment for Los Blancos and their followers. The easiest way to describe that moment is to say that, losing 1-0 to 10-man Atleti, 18-year-old, 6-foot-4 Alvaro Rodriguez leapt prodigiously high to head home Luka Modric’s cross and, in saving a point, became the second-youngest scorer in Madrid’s history behind the legendary Raul Gonzalez Blanco. (More on the mighty Raul in a moment.)
A good way to embroider the story is to say that, last week, Alvaro already “did a Lionel Messi.”
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When Messi was a kid and about to score his first of 672 goals for Barcelona, he was brought on against Albacete in May 2005. Ronaldinho produced a scooped flick of the ball, the teenage Argentinean, by then only a whisper of an emerging talent, ran onto the pass and beautifully lobbed the opposition keeper, Raul Valbuena. Linesman Luis Bravo Mayor incorrectly called the move offside.
At that stage, there were 18 seconds of normal time left. Thirty seconds after being robbed of a debut goal, Messi was waiting in the same left-sided position, Ronaldinho won the ball and produced the identical scooped and lofted pass to the little prodigy. Messi, almost from the same blade of grass, casually lobbed Valbuena again.
Chutzpah incorporated, and the announcement of an arriving superstar. From that day until last week LaLiga hadn’t seen anything similar — until Alvaro made his debut for Ancelotti’s reigning Spanish, European and world champions.
There were two minutes of normal time left at Osasuna, Madrid were holding on to a 1-0 lead and the kid made a beautifully timed run from his own half, kept diamond-sharp concentration on not letting the moment get to him, passed expertly to Vinicius Junior and suddenly it was 2-0. Except it wasn’t. Federico Valverde touched Modric’s pass while it was on its way to the 18-year-old substitute, rendering his perfectly timed run imperfect and the goal disallowed.
Imagine the sang-froid needed to produce an assist like that about 90 seconds after making your debut. Imagine the shock of cold reality when the referee disallowed the goal.
Hundreds of promising, emerging footballers would drop concentration.
About 70 seconds after the restart, Alvaro hunted down Osasuna defender Unai Garcia, who was dallying in possession, robbed him, looked up and served the perfect pass for Marco Asensio to make it 2-0. There is an undeniable correlation between the brilliance, the clear-mindedness, the intensity, the vision and the self-confidence of young Messi 18 years ago and the 18-year-old Alvaro who is emerging from Madrid’s ranks.
But, wait, there’s much, much more to come.
This prodigy, for that’s what he is, has spent 26 minutes on the pitch in LaLiga for Los Blancos. In that short amount of time, he has produced two brilliant assists (even if only one counted) and a goal.
What’s more, the goal was absolutely beautiful. A towering, precise, unstoppable header.
And here’s the sauce in the story: He’s really been at Madrid for only two and a half years. Where did they spot him? In Catalunya.
This potentially phenomenal young striker was born in a lovely place called Palamos, which is up the coast from the city of Barcelona, and was playing in Girona‘s youth system when Madrid’s scouts spotted him, packed him off to the Valdebebas youth academy, and here we are.
I’m not using the powerful adjective about him being potentially phenomenal solely on the basis of brief, explosive minutes in LaLiga plus half an hour in the Copa del Rey. There are expert witnesses to call to the stand.
Raul, who like Alvaro made his scoring debut for Madrid in a Derbi against Atletico, has been his coach for Madrid’s Castilla (the B-team). The legendary striker said a couple of days ago: “I was watching Alvaro play for our Juvenil B team and he scored a goal in a way I’ve not seen from anyone for absolutely ages.” On the basis of that finish alone, Raul promoted him past the next stage of his development and straight into the Castilla team.
A great leap forward that is about to be repeated.
Right after this disappointing Derbi draw, Ancelotti stated: “Alvaro will be promoted directly to the first team next season.” That followed the Italian, ahead of the Osasuna win, announcing: “Alvaro possesses things in his skill set that we don’t have in our squad.”
Think about those words. Ancelotti is coaching the fabulously resourced Spanish, European and world champions; he’s infamously slow to use hyperbole; he has literally seen everything as a player for Roma and AC Milan and as a manager at Parma, Juventus, Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain; but he’s willing to say publicly that this lanky, little-known but startlingly good Catalan possesses characteristics that Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo simply don’t? Now that is praise.
Except he’s not 100% Catalan. Born that one-hour drive north from Barcelona and educated in Catalunya, he qualifies to play for Spain and has done so at youth level. However, his dad is a proud ex-professional who came up at Penarol and, thus, Alvaro starred for Uruguay in the recent South American U20 championships, where his five goals took them to a second-place finish as beaten finalists to Brazil.
Bet your bottom dollar that the Spanish FA are conjuring up a myriad of arguments to try to persuade this wunderkind to change his mind, which he still can do, and play for La Roja at senior level. They tried it with Messi — without much luck.
Now, even in light of a painful Derbi result, if you look closely at the age profile of the players Madrid sign or develop, it’s pretty startling. Alvaro joins the recent production line of Vinicius, Valverde, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Sergio Arribas, all of whom have won trophies for the club, and the oldest of whom just turned 25 while the majority are in their early 20s.
Do not, under any circumstances, rule out this Spanish-born potential Uruguay international being given time to run at an established Uruguay national team star in Ronald Araujo on Thursday when the Clasico Copa del Rey semifinal first leg is played.
Meantime, if you’ve not seen Alvaro’s assists last week or his magnificent header against Atletico, go seek them out now. I order you. This kid is, without question, very special.