In April 2017, during the finest football moments of Real Madrid's three consecutive UEFA Champions League-winning campaigns, Bayern Munich visited the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium for the second leg of a quarterfinal tie. In a thrilling encounter, Los Blancos took out the German team 4-2 (and 6-3 on aggregate).
In extra time, a fired-up Marcelo—who had kept Bayern's Arjen Robben in his pocket for the game—gathered the ball deep in his own half. He lobbed the ball over Robben and received it back again from his teammate, Toni Kroos. He then shifted up a gear to surge past Joshua Kimmich in midfield, which brought him straight into the path of Bayern's two central defenders.
In a flash, Marcelo nicked the ball between them with his right foot and surged into the heart of Bayern's box. As goalkeeper Manuel Neuer ran out to block a shot, he generously slipped the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, who was running alongside him. The forward rolled the ball into an empty net for his hat-trick with Neuer helpless. It was quintessential Marcelo.
"He's a very Brazilian type of wing-back—very atypical, very singular," says Santiago Segurola, the doyen of Spanish football writers. "His attack is better than his defence, which is a contradiction, but in Marcelo's case it works. He's an essential player at Real Madrid as an attacker, but he has always been considered as 'suspicious' as a defender."
Marcelo is part of a continuum of flying full-backs to spring from Brazil, such as Roberto Carlos and Dani Alves. He's always hungry for the ball. For a wide player, he has a rare ability to break between the lines on the inside. During Madrid's glory years this decade, arguably only Ronaldo—who left for Juventus in the summer—has wreaked as much havoc on opposition defences.
That Marcelo has lost his starting place at the club is striking. Madrid coach Santiago Solari has preferred 22-year-old academy graduate Sergio Reguilon for the club's last three league games, against Real Betis, Sevilla and Espanyol. Marcelo's last league start was the 2-0 defeat to Real Sociedad on January 6. To add fuel to the fire, Spanish TV programme El Chiringuito leaked a fitness report that listed him as seven kilos overweight in mid-January.
"If it was a year ago—and Marcelo had been dropped—it would have been unthinkable," says Tomas Roncero, a journalist with Diario AS. "He was untouchable, but above all this season his physical condition has deteriorated. Over the last year, a lot of goals Real Madrid have conceded have been his fault because he's left gaps in defence. It conditions the whole defence—Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos have had to try to cover these gaps. I remember the recent league game against Villarreal—both goals came from his wing, and the same with the first goal last week against Girona [in the Copa del Rey]."
Solari was bold to drop him. In a team that has been struggling to score goals following the departure of Ronaldo, no one provides an X-factor in attack like Marcelo. Before the Argentinian was parachuted into the job as manager in late-October, Marcelo had a hand in 10 of the 17 goals Madrid had scored in the season.
In choosing Reguilon over the Brazilian, Solari has shown he's keen to shore up his defence. And that reputations count for nothing with him: Isco—a fan favourite in the club—has been in the wilderness since Solari's appointment too.
"I have my doubts about Solari," says Roncero. "As manager of Castilla [Real Madrid's reserve team], he didn't make any big decisions, but he's taken decisions now. We thought he would be a transitory coach, a man that wouldn't complicate things, but he has taken some drastic decisions—like dropping Isco and Marcelo—and that shows he doesn't want to stay in the job only until June, but for longer. He's showing Real Madrid that he has the personality to take decisions of this kind. It's surprising, but in a positive way. He's showing us that he doesn't have any fear.
"Marcelo has been with the club 12 years. Only Ramos has been there longer. He's the club's second captain and has a lot of importance in the dressing room, but at Real Madrid it doesn't matter how important you are—there's nowhere to hide. Remember when Jose Mourinho was manager, he suddenly attacked Iker Casillas also with the explanation that his performances had dipped. Casillas was untouchable until then.
"The same happened with Pepe. He was a well-loved player, a good player, and he suddenly found himself a substitute. It was the same with Isco when he was playing under Zinedine Zidane. The year  Real Madrid won the 11th European Cup, he didn't play. The following season, he got into the team and became untouchable under Zidane, but it wasn't easy. Other players that looked to have a firm status [Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez] ended up in the dugout."
Segurola concurs, believing that Solari has taken sentiment out of the equation. He's measuring his squad with a cold eye.
"In Marcelo's case, Solari has done an exercise in meritocracy," says Segurola. "He's picked his team according to performance more than players' prestige. He's basing his selection on achievement, and Marcelo and Isco haven't won any merits under him. The truth is the team is performing better without Marcelo and Isco than with them both in the team. I think Isco's case is impossible to recover, but I think Marcelo will win his place back."
Time is running out for Marcelo, however. He keeps fluffing his lines. The old defensive frailties—the lapses of concentration—are betraying him: He was at fault in playing Espanyol's Roberto Rosales onside for a late consolation goal in Madrid's 4-2 victory on Sunday. Meanwhile, Reguilon's status is growing, and he has made the position his to lose.
"Reguilon's brand has risen," says Roncero. "He's very fast. He's fit. He doesn't have the quality of Marcelo, but he's gotten better in attack. He crosses the ball well—with a lot of precision. And he defends his wing very well.
"When he came up against Jesus Navas from Sevilla—who is one of the best attacking right-sided wing-backs in the world at the moment—he hardly let him touch the ball. For the good of the team—its shape—it's better that Reguilon plays."
Solari has left a door open for Marcelo, though, unlike his frosty treatment of Isco. El Pais' Oscar Sanz points towards conciliatory statements made by Solari in a press conference on Thursday, in which he praised the competitive spirit of Marcelo.
"Solari spoke about how much Marcelo loves Real Madrid—that he's a player who would do everything for Real Madrid; that he's a very important player," says Sanz. "He has never said any of these kinds of things about Isco. So in Marcelo's case, Solari has been acting prudently. He understands the importance that Marcelo has in Real Madrid's dressing room. He's been very diplomatic.
"There is no other player like Marcelo. He's a beautiful footballer. No other team has a left full-back that can do what he can do. His capacity to break down teams' defences—to invent—is impressive. I can't recall a defender like him to manufacture goals. It's just a momentary thing. When the important matches come around in the Champions League, for example, he'll regain his position as a starter. He'll be convinced about his possibilities."
In what has been a turbulent season for Real Madrid, it remains to be seen what the future has in store for Marcelo. He has a contract until 2022—one of several sweetheart deals signed by the club for senior players in the flush of their memorable 2017, when Real Madrid won five titles in the calendar year. If his performances don't improve, he could be sold in a summer clearout. Roncero reckons it's "very possible" he'll be offloaded. There are several variables that will come into play.
"Marcelo has a contract with the club, so if he doesn't want to go, he'll stay," says Sanz. "If Real Madrid signs another player in this position, that might change things. If Real Madrid wanted to buy, say, Junior [Firpo]—a player with Real Betis—that will be a lot of competition for one place. If it's true that Cristiano wants him to join him at Juve, we could see him leave. Also, he's been a lot of years at Real Madrid. If he's tired of the pressure, he may want out. It's a lot of pressure to deal with at Real Madrid, although Marcelo knows how to deal with it better than most."
In the meantime, everything is building towards Real Madrid's UEFA Champions League knockout tie against Ajax, the first leg of which takes place on February 13. It'll be fascinating to see whether Solari opts for Reguilon or Marcelo.
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