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Real Madrid Need Raphael Varane to Emerge as Their Reliable Last Line of Defence

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2016

Dortmund's Gabonese forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (L) and Real Madrid's French defender Raphael Varane vie for the ball during the UEFA Champions League first leg football match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid at BVB stadium in Dortmund, on September 27, 2016. / AFP / Odd ANDERSEN        (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

Real Madrid went close to taking a first victory at Signal Iduna Park in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night, eventually drawing 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund to remain level on points with the German club in Group F.

With a doubleheader against bottom side Legia Warsaw to come next, Real will hope to send themselves close to qualification for the knockout stage with a further six points from those two games, making this a valuable point against Dortmund in the long run—even if it was frustrating to concede a late equaliser to BVB on the night.

Despite conceding two and not taking the victory, there were some extremely impressive points for manager Zinedine Zidane and his side to take from the game, with one of those being the performance of centre-back Raphael Varane.

The French defender had his best performance of the season against tough opposition, and the club desperately need him to discover this form on a regular basis. The position can be his for years to come if he manages to finally do so.

        

Below par, still unbeatable

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There's no question that Real Madrid were not, as an entire unit, at the top of their game at the Westfalenstadion. They were too easily cut apart by BVB's quick passing, the midfield did not close out the spaces between the lines (which the likes of Gonzalo Castro and Ousmane Dembele cut through time after time) and the match possession was heavily weighted in the home team's favour, split 60-40.

And yet, Dortmund, superior and impressive, could still not beat Real Madrid.

Dortmund's Gabonese forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (L) and Real Madrid's defender Dani Carvajal (2ndL) vie for the ball watched by Real Madrid's French defender Raphael Varane (2ndR) and Real Madrid's Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas (R) during the
ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

Away from home and in European competition, with much at stake and given the respective form of the teams heading into the fixture, the eventual scoreline is significant.

It was, in part, reminiscent of last season, when Real Madrid were not always fluid, not always considerably better than their opponents yet still won almost every match to close out the season and took the Champions League trophy themselves.

Even without being at their very best, not losing is a critical part of the squad's genetic makeup. Since the opening group-stage fixture against Sporting, Zidane's side haven't been near their best, but they are still unbeaten this season, even if the last three games have ended in draws.

The last two games, first with Las Palmas and now Dortmund, have seen Real Madrid concede a late equaliser.

     

Varane's recovery

Since the start of the 2016/17 season, Real have swapped Varane in and out of the team with Pepe—as has been the case in seasons gone by.

The Portuguese man was rested at the start of the year due to a shortened pre-season and has also suffered an injury already, while Varane has been unsteady in one or two displays of his own. It has been an ongoing theme for the past couple of years that neither has really been able to nail down a long-term run in the side due to fitness or form.

But perhaps Varane can now change that.

Against Dortmund, Los Blancos badly needed him to come through, and he did so with great aptitude and showing all the hallmarks of his game which made him a standout in defence as a youngster: pace, awareness to recover positionally, strength in the challenge and composure on the ball.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of the most feared names in world football these days, yet Varane largely dealt with him well, leading to praise from Zidane, per Marca. "Varane had to deal with a very fast striker in Aubameyang, and he controlled him well. He was unlucky with [Dortmund's first] goal, but he managed to score himself."

OptaJose @OptaJose

1 - Raphaël Varane has scored his first goal in #UCL in his 43 appearance in the competition. Gift.

Of course, Varane's goal was well-timed and important to the end result, but it is for his improved defensive performances that he'll win his spot in the team, and it was there he shone most.

As Real Madrid defended reasonably deep for the majority of the match, Varane was able to make the decision—or perhaps had it made for him by the coaching staff—to stay as tight to Aubameyang as possible, not worrying about keeping the defensive line too rigid but instead preventing the Gabon striker from having space to play in.

@karlmatchett

A tight-marking approach meant there was rarely a shooting chance for him to work, aside from set pieces and the one-yard tap-in he scored after Keylor Navas punched the ball against Varane's head, leaving nothing the defender could do to prevent the goal.

When it came to one-on-one scenarios, though, Varane had the measure of Aubameyang thanks to his aggressive approach and, most importantly, his relentless concentration. On the rare occasion the striker did get the chance to run in behind the defence, Real Madrid's man reacted phenomenally, showcasing his own athletic prowess.

        

Ramos and Pepe

Varane's improvement for the match was important, but to take the spot on a regular basis he needs that kind of concentrated, diligent display on a weekly basis. To be quite blunt, Real Madrid do not get it from their captain and other central defender, Sergio Ramos.

The Spaniard's defensive technique is second to none, but his mental grasp of the game tends toward lunacy, more suited at times to a schoolboy player than a seasoned World Cup winner, and he costs his team chances on a regular basis. Even against Dortmund he was caught out more than once and could easily have been shown a second yellow card.

Pepe finished last season as Real's best defender, no question, but his age is against him.

Add in the absence of Casemiro (and the midfield which played against BVB were utterly incapable of stopping the through passes between the lines, no matter how hard they worked) and Marcelo being injured, and a big step-up in consistency from Varane in the next few weeks could go a long way toward securing important points.

Real Madrid's French defender Raphael Varane (R) scores his side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League first leg football match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid at BVB stadium in Dortmund, on September 27, 2016. / AFP / Odd ANDERSEN
ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

It's probable Zidane will continue to give game time to both in the next month or two, but Varane has to be the reliable face of the defence, the one to whom the boss turns for the biggest games when losing simply isn't an option. Come the end of the campaign, when silverware is up for grabs, the back line won't be changed for rotation's sake; it will be the first-choice pairing in place. That's what Varane must work toward being part of.

Madrid need a Mr. Reliable in their back line, a composed and cool character who will simply do the required job without fuss, without errors, without being swayed by the errors of those around them. Varane has all the talent to do so and needs to show it, immediately, every time he takes to the field, not just on the biggest of occasions.

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