BY RYAN PLANT

“Without him, the team cannot play the same,” said Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri of the Real Madrid player that he feared most going into the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final. He was not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s brace a few hours later helped Madrid beat the Old Lady 4-1, but instead the man who marshalled the midfield all game and scored Los Merengues’ second goal – Casemiro.

With 42 appearances in all competitions during the 2016-17 campaign, Casemiro has been a main-stay in Zinedine Zidane’s short yet trophy-laden stint as Real manager. He has played over 100 games since arriving from São Paulo four and a half years ago. However, until Zidane’s appointment, the Brazilian played a bit-part role at the Santiago Bernabéu. He was assigned to the B-team and played in the Segunda Division, and was sent out on loan to Porto for the 2014-15 season to gain first-team experience by then Madrid manager, Carlo Ancelotti.

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The loan move benefitted all parties. Casemiro had a chance to play regularly in a European league and the Champions League for the first time. Back in Spain, Madrid were aided by the brilliance of Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi as the midfield anchors behind the invaluable attacking talent at Ancelotti’s disposal. They carried the mantle left by Xabi Alonso, who left for Bayern Munich following Madrid’s tenth Champions League success at the end of the 2013-14 season.

Typically of Florentino Pérez, Madrid’s club president, Ancelotti’s success was quickly forgotten and he was sacked in 2015. Los Blancos finished runners-up behind Barcelona in La Liga that season, and watched their arch-rivals lift the Champions League crown by defeating Juventus in the final. After starring for Porto, it seemed obvious that after Khedira and Illarramendi both left the Bernabéu for pastures new, that Casemiro was ready to play a major role for Madrid during 2015-16. Rafa Benítez however, Pérez’s surprising choice to replace Ancelotti, had other ideas.

Since Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup successes over half a century ago, Los Blancos have been associated with fast-moving and fluid attacking football. Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano dominated the 1960 European Cup final; Madrid beat German outfit Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. Di Stéfano scored a hat-trick and Puskás scored the other four goals. But, to compliment the unbelievable attacking talent on show, Madrid are indebted to captain José María Zárraga and his midfield partner, José María Vidal. Their hard work and graft in the centre of midfield allowed Real’s more gifted players to surge forward without the danger of being counter-attacked. This is a model that perhaps Benítez would have done well to emulate 55 years later.

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Instead, the Spaniard embarked on a mission to use as much attacking talent in one side as was possible, copying the work of Carlos Quieroz in the ‘Galácticos’, or ‘Superstars’, era, and ignored the defensive talent in his squad. It is alleged that players were signed by Pérez for their good looks and marketing potential back in 2003 and he refused to invest in defensive-minded, anonymous players. As a result Madrid played second fiddle behind Barcelona for much of the noughties. Pérez departed the club and was replaced by Ramón Calderón, who employed Fabio Capello as manager and signed Fabio Cannavaro, who had captained Italy to World Cup success, in the summer of 2006. It appeared that Madrid as a club had learned their lesson, but nearly a decade later, with Pérez re-elected as president, under Benítez Real’s dark habits returned.

Benítez will forever be remembered by Madrid’s fans for his poor time as manager. He was booed, jeered and whistled at every home game by the Bernabéu’s impatient home crowd leading up to his dismissal in January 2016. The final nail in the coffin for the fans was Real’s 4-0 El Clásico defeat to Barcelona. Amazingly for Barça, and embarrassingly for Benítez, their rivals won convincingly without the great Lionel Messi. Madrid’s midfield of James Rodríguez, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos was stretched for the duration of the game, and left plenty of gaps for Barcelona, particularly man of the match Andrés Iniesta, to exploit. Something had to change, and after Benítez was sacked, Zidane was swiftly appointed and had new ideas; perhaps he had learned better than most from the ‘Galácticos’ sides that he featured in at the turn of the century.

Zidane had the improbable task of lifting Madrid from an unimaginable third-paced finish in La Liga for the second time in three seasons, whilst maintaining a charge for the club’s 11th Champions League crown. To do this, he called upon Casemiro to replace €80 million signing Rodríguez in the starting eleven. James at the time was the world’s fourth most expensive player, and had starred at the 2014 World Cup, but Casemiro, a B-team graduate, was of more use to Zidane despite the Colombian’s hefty price tag.

Of course James still featured for Los Blancos, but not much as he did under Ancelotti and Benítez. For all of Madrid’s attacking midfield talent, Casemiro was a completely different entity. Not only could he pass over long distances, win headers in either box and score the occasional goal, but he could defend, and was capable of providing a defensive screen in front of Real’s back four like no one else at the club. In fact, after Zidane’s appointment and Casemiro became a fixture in the side, Real won 17 out of their last 20 league games and kept seven clean sheets. Under Benítez, Madrid conceded 14 goals in his last eight games as manager, including seven in two games against Sevilla and Barcelona.

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Casemiro’s impact under Zidane was not just limited to the league. He played 11 consecutive games as Real for the second time in three years defeated Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final; Real won on penalties after the city-rivals held each other to a 1-1 draw. Casemiro played all 120 minutes and silenced the attacking flair of Koke and Antoine Griezmann that had already seen Atleti beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their route to the final.

On Saturday Madrid became the first club in the modern era to retain their Champions League crown having already won their first league title since 2012. They were aided by the brilliance of Ronaldo, who scored s a brace, but Casemiro underpinned the subtle yet brilliant changes made by Zidane during his time as manager of the club that he starred at as a player for five years. His superb long-range goal to put Real ahead and set-up a convincing 4-1 victory grabbed the headlines, but it is important to not forget his underrated, tireless work that allowed Toni Kroos, Modric and Isco to unlock Juventus’ notoriously immoveable defence with such ease.

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