Champions League final: Real Madrid’s future stars are poised to succeed club legends

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Real Madrid’s aging veterans stood on the sidelines as their younger colleagues celebrated a stunning Champions League semi-final triumph, demonstrating that the club’s immediate and long-term future is in a better position than many critics have predicted.

Champions League final: Real Madrid's future stars are poised to succeed club legends

As the final whistle blew on a 6-5 aggregate victory against Manchester City that won Carlo Ancelotti’s side a position in Saturday’s final against Liverpool, none of Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, or Casemiro were on the pitch.

Rodrygo etched his mark in Real history by scoring two late goals to force extra time, Eduardo Camavinga glided across the pitch to claim the Bernabeu, and Federico Valverde’s engine was still churning after 120 minutes.

Vinicius Junior, who has made more appearances than any of his teammates this season (51), scored a fantastic solo goal in the first leg and survived until five minutes from time in the second.

Real Madrid’s top appearance-makers in all competitions 2021-22
Vinicius Junior51 apps; 4,184 minutes
Thibaut Courtois50 apps; 4,590 minutes
Eder Militao49 apps; 4,406 minutes
Rodrygo48 apps; 2,435 minutes
Casemiro46 apps; 3,767 minutes

In many ways, this Champions League run has seen president Florentino Perez’s transfer strategy of the past few years come to fruition, with the talented prospects he has invested in delivering on their potential at crucial moments to put Real on the verge of a 14th European Cup triumph.

It’s also given an insight into the metamorphosis of the La Liga winners, as Modric and Benzema enter their twilight years after a decade at the club, during which they helped the club win four Champions Leagues.

They are the only stars left from Perez’s second term, alongside Kroos and Gareth Bale, who continued the ‘Galactico’ style that characterized his first term as president.

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The arrival of Luis Figo from rivals Barcelona in the early 2000s was followed by high-profile signings such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, and Michael Owen. Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo kicked things off when Perez returned in 2009.

The only major Galactico business Madrid has done since James Rodriguez arrived after the 2014 World Cup was investing £89 million on a 28-year-old Eden Hazard from Chelsea.

The rest of their recruitment has centered on younger, albeit expensive, prospects or free transfers.

Following a season with no additions, David Alaba’s free transfer from Bayern Munich and the £28 million deal for teenage Rennes player Camavinga were the sole incomings last summer.

In 2017, former Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano analyzed the situation. “Did Florentino change?” he asked. “No. The market changed. Now it’s incredibly difficult for the club to be able to wait for a talent to mature into a Ballon d’Or winner and then buy them just because you’re Real Madrid.”

Real’s pursuit of Vinicius exemplified their strategy of snatching up the best young players in the world, with chief scout Juni Calafat – who also spotted Rodrygo and defender Eder Militao – traveling to Brazil when Vinicius was only 16 and had only 17 minutes of senior football under his belt for Flamengo.

Champions League final: Real Madrid's future stars are poised to succeed club legends
Champions League final: Real Madrid’s future stars are poised to succeed club legends

Vinicius moved to Real Madrid for £39 million when he turned 18 in July 2018.

“Vinicius and I made the jump from Flamengo to Real Madrid. But there is a big difference,” says former Brazil winger Savio, who signed in 1997.

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“I left Flamengo when I was 23, almost 24. I left with a bit more experience. I learned a lot of things in the first season, mainly in terms of changing countries, football, tactics.

“But Vinicius was 18 years old, a very young player. He practically jumps from Flamengo, from the youth teams, to the first team. So there were still things to learn, to take to the pitch in terms of technique and tactics.

“Real Madrid is a very big change. In the first season and second season he got to know the club better – how they play – because between South American football and European football is a very big change. It was a question of time to get to know the tactics, the style of play, the style of the club.”

This season, Vinicius, 21, has produced his finest season to date, scoring 21 goals in all competitions, registering 20 assists, and creating a formidable partnership with Benzema, 34, who has scored 34 goals this season.

“With all the change and with all the difficulties he has had in the first few seasons, he never stopped being the Vinicius I saw in Flamengo,” says Savio. “That is the one-on-ones, the individual quality. This year he is showing more and more of his potential and talent.”

Who is the most likely Modric replacement?

Who will replace Real’s long-serving midfield trio of Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro, who are 36, 32, and 30 years old, respectively?

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Former Real defender Fernando Hierro, who worked as Ancelotti’s assistant during his first time at the club, feels Camavinga, 19, and Valverde, 23, both of whom were signed from Penarol six years ago, have the ability to fill that hole.

Champions League final: Real Madrid's future stars are poised to succeed club legends
Champions League final: Real Madrid’s future stars are poised to succeed club legends

“Modric is ageing like fine wine. Let’s hope he can perform at this level for one or two more years,” says Hierro. “Adapting to a club like Real Madrid is not easy and Camavinga and Valverde are really prepared to step in.”

Ex-Real playmaker Guti agrees. “Fede is really a very talented player,” he says. “He should just prove it on the pitch, more so than he has done so far because he has got a great talent.

“Camavinga is really another very talented player. Of course it is not easy to replace someone like Modric. If you give them time, those two will really grow and perform very well at Real Madrid.”

Camavinga arrived as one of Europe’s most coveted talents, and Ancelotti has referred to him as “the club’s present and future,” encouraging his young midfielders to learn from the more experienced players around them.

“They are competing with the best in the world and they must evaluate and understand that in the future they will be the ones playing there,” Ancelotti told Spanish newspaper AS.

“Camavinga has immense quality and power, but he must learn and gain experience and knowledge for the position in which he plays. He doesn’t have it yet, but he’s only 19 years old.

“Every day that he trains with Modric, Kroos or Casemiro is a master’s degree – I’m sure he learns more from what he sees his team-mates do in training than from what I tell him.”

Ancelotti remarked of Valverde, who has also been used as a right-sided forward: “Valverde is displaying all of his skills. He must shoot whenever he has the opportunity because he is an exceptional shooter. He also has the physicality and verticality that a modern midfielder lacks.”

Champions League final: Real Madrid's future stars are poised to succeed club legends
Champions League final: Real Madrid’s future stars are poised to succeed club legends

That is not to say there will be no investment this summer; Real have been linked with Aurelien Tchouameni, a 22-year-old Monaco midfielder, and there will undoubtedly be important arrivals after missing out on Mbappe.

However, Ancelotti is optimistic about the future. “We have the ideal relief for these legends of the club,” he said.

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