Madrid find their Pogba within as Valverde proves the catalyst for change
AFP, Madrid :
Zinedine Zidane pursued Paul Pogba but found Fede Valverde and his emergence as Real Madrid's most important midfielder may yet prove the turning point in their season.
Signed for six million euros in 2016, Valverde cost around 200 million less than Madrid might have paid for Pogba last summer. As well as saving the club money, he might have saved their coach too.
Zidane, staring down the barrel in September, is flying high three months later. Madrid sit level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga and have secured qualification to the Champions League's last 16.
They face Espanyol at home on Saturday ahead of a dead European rubber against Club Brugge, the kind of fixture Valverde would once have viewed as a rare opportunity to play in the team.
Instead, the 21-year-old has become a key figure in Zidane's second era and, between Karim Benzema up front and Sergio Ramos at the back, the central cog in a newly-formed spine.
When Zidane talks about Valverde, he invariably darts to the English description, "box-to-box", a phrase he clearly feels best suits the energy and dynamism the Uruguayan from Montevideo has brought to Madrid's midfield three.
For years, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos had been the immoveable duo ahead of the more defensively-minded Casemiro, but their ponderous performances came to characterise a Madrid side that lacked spark and, perhaps, the motivation to go again.
Valverde has broken the partnership and added what was missing. His zip, athleticism and direct running offer Madrid the base from which they have been again able to dominate matches.
"He is amazing," Kroos said last month. "I really love this player. To come here is not easy and to play like he is at this age means he has a lot of quality. I'm sure he has a great future here for many years to come."