Hazard vs Vinicius: Zidane’s latest selection headache remains unsolved

Hazard vs Vinicius: Zidane’s latest selection headache remains unsolved

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Hazard vs Vinicius: Zidane’s latest selection headache remains unsolved

The Real Madrid boss feels that both his first-choice left wingers can play in the same team, but Wednesday’s win over Mallorca suggested differently
Zinedine Zidane has a problem. Admittedly it is a patented ‘nice problem to have’, but it remains a problem.

In one hand he has Eden Hazard; a player who cost Real Madrid €100 million (£88m/$112m), is regarded among the best players in the world but has struggled during his first season in the Spanish capital thanks in no small part to a series of injury problems.

In the other he has Vinicius Junior; a 19-year-old who cost the club €46m (£40m/$51m) two years ago, was one of the few shining lights during their disastrous 2018-19 campaign and is growing into the one of the most dangerous wingers in La Liga.

Both players want to be deployed on the left-hand side of a front three, and so keeping the pair happy is likely to become increasingly difficult as Hazard regains fitness and Vinicius continues developing.

“I don’t see it as impossible, but we try to make the players as comfortable as possible.,” Zidane told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Mallorca.

“His (Vinicius’) position is Eden’s, but it doesn’t mean anything. I like to put the players in their place, but in a match they can play together. I have no doubts about that.”

On Wednesday evening, Zidane put his money where his mouth was.

Instead of his usual 4-3-3, the French coach opted for a formation closer to a 4-2-3-1, with Hazard positioned as a No.10 behind Karim Benzema and Vinicius out on the left. Gareth Bale, meanwhile, earned a rare start on the right.

A risky system, no doubt, particularly with the only defensive midfielder in the squad, Casemiro, unavailable through suspension.

But despite the relegation-threatened visitors starting brightly at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, it was an experiment that largely worked.

It worked in the sense that Madrid ran out comfortable 2-0 winners on the night; a result that saw them reclaim top spot in La Liga with seven matches to play and thus thrust the pressure back onto Barcelona as they prepare to face Celta Vigo on Saturday.

It also worked in as much as it allowed Vinicius to truly flourish.

Despite his form last season, the teenager began the current campaign in a state of flux. One week, he would start, the next, he would be out of the matchday squad all together.

At a club of Real Madrid’s size, and given the attacking talent available to Zidane, this is understandable, but it did little to suggest that Vinicius was seen as a viable alternative for Hazard since he was not an automatic pick while the Belgium international was sidelined.

Since the turn of the year, though, something has changed.

Vinicius Real Madrid v Barcelona 03012020
Vinicius has appeared in all but one of Madrid’s league games in 2020, a run that is doing wonders for his confidence and, as a result, his performances.

No longer the youngest Brazilian around Valdebebas – Rodrygo and Reinier have seen to that – he is beginning to embrace his slightly more senior role.

Emboldened by a goal in March’s Clasico shortly before the shutdown of football in Spain, he has returned from lockdown in scintilating form, with Madrid having won all four of their matches since La Liga restarted.

While Hazard was an unused substitute, Vinicius’ driving run into the box led to the penalty which gave Madrid the lead at Real Sociedad on Sunday.

And four days later it was he who opened the scoring against Mallorca, latching onto a fine through-ball from Luka Modric before deftly chipping the onrushing goalkeeper.

Vinicius Jr, Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
It was a finish that offered something of a riposte to those who continue to question his output in the final third.

Throughout his time at Madrid, Vinicius’ goals and assist numbers have relentlessly come under scrutiny. In 62 matches for Los Blancos, he has scored seven goals and laid on 16 assists. A respectable return for a teenager at a top European club, but the perception is that they could be so much higher if he could only show a little more composure.

According to Opta, of his 36 shots in La Liga this season, only 16 have been on target, resulting in three goals. Of his 28 crosses into the box, only five have found a white shirt. For all the dropping of the shoulder and beating opposition full-backs for pace, Vinicius still has questions to answer.

After Wednesday night’s performance, however, the hope is that those questions will become fewer and farther between. He almost added a second goal moments after his first, only to see his scooped effort come back off the crossbar following Benzema’s defence-splitting pass.

He proved a menace throughout while also working hard to protect Ferland Mendy behind him at left-back as they regularly doubled up to limit Madrid-loanee Takefusa Kubo from causing problems for his parent club on Mallorca’s right.

So, if the system change worked for Vinicius, then what of Hazard?

Eden Hazard Real Madrid
The former Chelsea man showed flashes of what he can do when given space to turn and run at defenders, but with his fitness still not what he would hope it to be following his spells in the treatment room, he spent periods watching the game go on around him.

Monitoring the Belgian’s movements, it felt at times that he was not 100 per cent sure exactly where he was meant to be on the pitch, particularly when Benzema dropped deep to join in with the play and create space in behind for others.

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He was eventually replaced after 62 minutes having watched Sergio Ramos curl a stunning free-kick into the top corner from 25 yards to wrap up victory, and there must be a slight worry that Vinicius is the coming man ahead of the battle between them for a starting role that is likely to begin in earnest next season.

Zidane may insist they can play together, but on Wednesday’s evidence it certainly suits one player more than the other.

The ‘nice problem’ is far from being solved right now.

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