5 Real Madrid Players Who Deserve More 1st-Team Chances in 2017
Real Madrid will be aiming to make 2017 just as memorable as the last calendar year, during which they won the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup and embarked on their club-record unbeaten run.
Zinedine Zidane has players at his disposal who are certainly capable of emulating or even improving upon those achievements, but his job is to make sure each member feels involved enough to perform at a high level when picked—even if they're not regulars in the starting XI.
Several of the squad might feel they should be in the side more often than has been the case, and in 2017, there are five in particular who could be rewarded with more regular game time to one extent or another.
Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has been a star in the first half of the season—but it's back to bench duty for him now after Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric all recovered from their respective injuries.
It's not an exaggeration to say Real would not be where they are right now—top of the table, still unbeaten this season—if it weren't for Kovacic stepping up in a big, big way and filling the gaps in the centre of the park.
Whether in a two- or three-man midfield, he was excellent defensively, mature in his buildup work and managed to bridge the divide between middle and attacking thirds of the pitch despite a lack of cohesion elsewhere.
Kovacic has played over 1,200 minutes already this season for Madrid, and Zidane should reward his vast improvement from last term by ensuring Kovacic remains a regular on the teamsheet, whether that's with a single regular role or else by rotating the usual trio to give the No. 16 equal opportunity to impress.
A minor injury at the start of the year will hamper him somewhat, and he'll have to bide his time for the next chance, but when he does get it—and inevitably take it—Zidane cannot keep treating him as a back-up.
Real Madrid's fourth-choice centre-back and second-choice left-back this season, Nacho has been enormously consistent when called upon to the extent that he has probably been the most regularly impressive defender in white.
It's easy to leave him out of the team; he's a smaller name than Pepe or Sergio Ramos, he's never had the same status as Marcelo and isn't viewed the world over by those who gauge on reputation rather than form as Raphael Varane is. But Nacho rarely lets the team down, and this term, he has elevated his game impressively.
He's not a world-beater and probably never will reach that standard, but there's a lot to be said for reliability and consistency, especially in a back line such as Real Madrid's—which is prone to mistakes, loss of concentration and reckless abandonment of positioning.
Nacho and Varane has looked Madrid's best pairing this season, and if the decisions aren't taken merely based on how big a name is, perhaps the homegrown Spaniard should be the one to replace Pepe at the end of the season, rather than spending funds on a new player from elsewhere.
Spanish striker Alvaro Morata has had a good impact in his first half-year back in white, but he doesn't quite seem to have the full backing of Zidane just yet.
The opening months of the season saw Morata as the team's top scorer, and he was certainly the best-performing forward at the club, with Cristiano Ronaldo struggling after injury initially and Karim Benzema nothing less than woeful until about November.
And yet Zidane consistently gave Benzema starts and the big games, as well as more chances to regain form and fitness. Even now, months after Benzema came back from injury, Morata has played more games than Benzema, but it's the Frenchman who has more minutes on the pitch—in other words, he gets to start, while Morata comes on as a substitute.
Having played 300 minutes more than Morata, though, Benzema has only one strike more than his team-mate (10 goals to nine) in all competitions.
Morata works harder, his link play is tremendous and he busies himself in the channels all game long. There's tactical flexibility with him in the team, and he's the long-term option for Madrid—if they don't sell him for an enormous profit.
Give Morata more matches, and the team will be better for it.
The battle of the modern Real Madrid seems to be whether to include James Rodriguez or sell him, whether the battle rages among fans, club directors or media outlets.
An enormously talented player, James guarantees goals and chances, is a huge commercial plus and has a great fanbase to bring with him—but against that, there are question marks over his commitment, his ability to fit in tactically and, above all else, who to leave out to accommodate him in the team.
Zidane's plan so far has revolved around ignoring him for weeks on end, then giving him a run in the team—then repeat, regardless of performance or impact. That can only go on for so long before the player gets tired of not being relied on and other clubs come up with the opportunity, financially and on the pitch, to make a move for James.
While Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez are sidelined, James must be given the opportunity to shine, and then kept in the team when he inevitably shows his worth.
Our final pick isn't likely to command game time to any great extent, but the next few months are especially important for Mariano Diaz. It's time to show what he's capable of at the highest level.
The Dominican attacker has five goals in seven appearances this season and has so much intent and aggression about his game that he changes the way Madrid attack, immediately, as soon as he enters the pitch.
He's trying to make his mark, of course, prove a point and show he can impact on the side, and there's no reason why Zidane shouldn't harness that energy and determination.
Whether it's in dead-rubber final half-hours when the crowd want to see another pointless goal or two against an already beaten opponent, to spur the team on to a comeback as he did against Deportivo La Coruna or simply to reward the player for his patience, Mariano should be handed minutes on the pitch whenever possible.
It's not likely to lead to a starting berth—more probably it will see him embark on a loan move where he can be a starter for a season in 2017/18. But it's the next step for him to showcase exactly why he has remained a Real Madrid player without really getting a look-in. It will also allow the team to benefit from his presence even when more experienced players are the natural go-to options for the head coach.