By Leyla Hamed.
It was anything but a dull affair at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday night, despite the first leg ending goalless between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.
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The draw of two Madrid sides together in a Champions League quarter-final was a mouth-watering pairing, and the tie delivered even without any goals scored. It remained open and entertaining throughout the 90 minutes, with two clear main protagonists: Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak and Real Madrid young gun Raphael Varane. The 21-year-old surprised many by turning in a great performance, which was reminiscent of his outstanding season during 2012-13.
The truth is Varane wasn’t even supposed to start at the Calderon. But with Pepe suffering discomforts on the morning of the match, he was called up to fill the role as centre-back alongside Sergio Ramos.
After months of games littered with mistakes by the Frenchman, he completed a flawless match against Atletico. His performance on Tuesday was definitely the best so far since he suffered a devastating knee injury against Espanyol in Cornella roughly two years ago. Varane looked motivated, always focused and incredibly quick to cut out dangerous play from Atletico. He even beat his international team-mate Antoine Griezmann for pace; similar to when he brilliantly marked Messi and single-handedly rescued Real Madrid in a 1-1 draw on his El Clasico debut in 2013. Madrid newspapers celebrated the draw as if it were a victory, with all the praise going to Varane when he was then an up-and-coming teen defender.
The great stats don’t do justice to the young defender’s crucial display. The Frenchman effectively blocked nine crosses in the area from Diego Simeone’s men and only committed a single foul as well as recovering 14 balls and clearing another 25. But his numbers don’t end there: Varane completed 86 per cent of his passes (39 out of 44 passes) and covered an impressive distance of 9’4km at the Calderon.
And of course, it’s a must to mention his spectacular run that amazed the crowds and made him a trending topic on Twitter right before the end of the first half. The centre-back completely took over the right wing and created one of the great plays of the game (if not the greatest) as he practically ran from his own area to the other end, getting rid of rivals in his way; evoking memories of Gareth Bale’s famous run against Barcelona in Copa del Rey final. Varane still had time to make a fantastic pass to Karim Benzema, who chose to assist James Rodriguez instead of shooting. A wonderful save by Oblak made of that chance only that, one of the many that the visiting team had in their dominant first half.
The improvement from the Frenchman means good news for Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and the player himself, who needed this display to regain trust and feel confident to be the defender he used to be before the injury. Although it’s very likely that Pepe will recover his spot when he’s fit again, Varane isn’t the third centre-back option anymore. His importance to the team has been restored and he can see himself able to be in Ancelotti’s starting XI. And this opens the debate again: who should be the preferred centre-back pairing at Real Madrid?