Did you hear the one about the Uruguayan, the Dutchman and the Spaniard? It goes like this: They’d all walk into almost any other team than the one they’re at, but each of them — at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, respectively — has had to fight for a starting place, a role, a specific position. They’ve had to fight for their right to dream of winning the Champions League this month.
Valverde can become only the third Uruguayan ever to start in a winning European Cup final, should Madrid make it that far. De Jong’s first season at Camp Nou has been flecked with injuries, a change of coach and the whiff of decline around him. Llorente has excelled for Atleti after being forced out of the club he supports (Madrid) in part by the emergence and indeed importance of Valverde.
Can any of these three help his club lay hands on the Champions League trophy after the longest, weirdest campaign in the competition’s 65-year history?
They are all football striplings playing in sides in which the iconic players are a decade, or more, older. They are mere babes in arms, yet they are important, and each could be deeply influential if their club is to progress in the one-off Champions League phase that arrives next week.
Take Valverde. Yes, he’s played in Zinedine Zidane’s side 43 times this season, but he only turned 22 a matter of days ago and he’s got a knowledge and experience deficit on Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema of anything from 11 to 13 years. The Uruguayan — who has just won his first two Madrid trophies in this, his real breakthrough season — has become such a ball winner, so intelligent in the destructive and creative side of all the things Spain‘s new champions do well that it’s tough to digest that he’s only actually started five Champions League matches so far. This is a talent still in search of his perfect position, perfect role, perfect moment to emerge and fit like jigsaw pieces.
For Julen Lopetegui last season, Valverde might just as well not have existed. He made the odd bench appearance, but didn’t get one chance in La Liga. Santi Solari favoured the Uruguayan, but only generally as someone to get loose-change minutes at the end of a match. In a queue for midfield places, Llorente — then still at the Bernabeu — was favoured. How times change, and how quickly.
As soon the dynamic Valverde started for Solari, at Real Betis, Real Madrid won. As soon as Zidane took over, Valverde began to be a regular first pick. Now he’s influential, successful, a title winner and someone whose star is on the rise.
“Modern midfielders have to be a combination of everything. We are back in an age of total football,” he said. “I love the pressing side of our game, cutting out passes, robbing possession … and of course giving goal assists or scoring remain important. But I try to make my performances a compendium of all those things.”
Valverde truly earned his spurs in the Spanish Super Cup last January. There were five minutes left, in a Madrid derby no less, and for medals this time.
Alvaro Morata was sent racing through on goal by a Saul pass and Valverde 100% cynically hacked the striker down from behind. A red card was brandished, a melee ensued, no goal came from the subsequent free kick (the tackle was cleverly timed just before Morata reached the penalty box) and, within minutes, a penalty shootout was won by Los Blancos, after which Valverde was named man of the match.
So the Uruguayan’s value and Zidane’s respect for this iron fist and silk glove of a kid are both well established, but Valverde tired during the last few matches after restart, began to see his name listed as a substitute slightly more often and Zidane’s 4-3-3 formation — in which Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos often start — began to develop touchstone status.
Against Manchester City next week, trailing 2-1 and without captain Sergio Ramos, will Valverde start? If so, in which position? Will his powerful running, ability to win the ball and do damage high up the pitch give the 2017 and 2018 winners an outside chance against Pep Guardiola’s City? Perhaps particularly as an impact sub?
Don’t bet against him.
De Jong is a different case. Barely a year older than Valverde the Dutchman’s stats add up in stark contrast.
The veteran of a Europa League final, De Jong has starred in wins over Schalke, Benfica, Tottenham, Juventus, Real Madrid, Internazionale and Borussia Dortmund in UEFA competition already. Mobile and daring, with the capacity to drift past opponents or organise a passing game from deep, there’s still legitimate excitement about what this youngster will be able to do as he matures. Of Barcelona’s recent mega purchases (Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann), De Jong has attracted the least criticism, but if he’s truly a thoroughbred footballer — and for Ajax and the Netherlands that looks to be the case — when will his club start to yield the fruits of their huge outlay?
What’s true is that when he was taking Europe by storm, and winning at both the Bernabeu and Juventus Stadium last season, De Jong played as one of two organising midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It wouldn’t really shock anyone if the belaboured and out-of-his-depth Quique Setien utilised such a setup to try to to shake off Napoli‘s toothy grip on Barcelona’s ankles next week. The tie is balanced 1-1 but Gennaro Gattuso’s side, which edged out Juve to win the Coppa Italia in a display that would have given Barcelona fans chills, will arrive with fewer problems.
Around De Jong, not for the first time, there are some chaotic scenes.
Arthur, who’s about to join Juve, has effectively gone AWOL — home in Brazil and making it clear he has no further interest in helping the club he’s about to leave. Arturo Vidal? He’s enjoyed a vivacious short break after Barcelona lost the league title and he’s suspended from the Napoli return leg after his red card in Italy back in … well, can anyone remember when the first leg was played? It’s so long ago. Just to add to the debilitating facts facing a Barcelona side that, admittedly, hasn’t lost in 35 home Champions League matches, Sergio Busquets is also suspended, meaning that barring any training ground injuries an Ivan Rakitic-De Jong partnership is a racing certainty. At the back, Barcelona are striving to get Clement Lenglet fit from a groin injury to partner the ever-solid Gerard Pique, while Sam Umtiti is definitely going to be absent with an injury and Ronald Araujo sprained his ankle quite badly last weekend.
This is a moment for De Jong, potentially restored to the organising two-man defensive barrier in front of a back four and behind a creative trident plus Luis Suarez as the lone striker, to make the key impact of his debut season. This is an opportunity to revisit the quarterfinal stage when, last season against Madrid, he made such a massive impact.
Can he? Will he? Is Setien smart enough to give De Jong a platform via which he comes to the aid of his club? We shall soon see.
And that leaves us with Llorente.
This latest product of a footballing dynasty, his father, his uncle and his great uncle (Paco Llorente, Julio Llorente and the mighty Paco Gento) won nearly 40 trophies between them — all with Real Madrid. Paco and Julio were defenders, great uncle Paco was an utterly irresistible, bullish winger — one of the all time greats — but Marcos was an organising midfielder: busy, athletic, tidy, determined. He has not been dominant anywhere other than his loan season at Alaves, where he was the drum major for their march to La Liga safety and the Copa del Rey final under Mauricio Pellegrino.
Llorente had been little lost, a little so-so in Diego Simeone’s setup when used as midfield pivote, but now the ex-Madrid man, who’s becoming the darling of the Atleti fans, is suddenly a talisman: a goal-getting, goal-making striker, a Simeone invention that is beginning to look like a little stroke of maverick genius. An adjustment of about 25 meters’ distance in pitch position has rocketed Llorente out of the world of blue-collar defensive midfielders and into the galaxy of forwards where superstars cavort like meteors.
The experiment began at Anfield in the round of 16. The reigning champions were 2-0 up, threatening to cut loose and looking deserved winners of the tie. Ten minutes after the break, Simeone withdrew his only striker, ignored Morata on the bench, put on Llorente and asked him to play as a false nine. There was nobody for Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez to mark as Atleti looked to arrive around the box. The goal-scoring responsibility had been given to Llorente.
When stand-in Liverpool keeper Adrian made a horrible mistake and kicked directly to Joao Felix, Atleti still looked nowhere near clawing a goal back. Llorente took the assist from his Portuguese teammate, produced a world-championship snooker shot into the far corner and the tie had changed. Irrevocably. Llorente reacted like a man of destiny. He did the same with his next opportunity, as Liverpool stood off him, then with quick mind and dextrous feet, he sent Morata clean through for the 3-2 goal.
Lockdown would soon follow, giving Simeone time to reflect, and he declared to his squad (plus the media) that he didn’t believe Morata and Diego Costa could play together. Llorente then starred as a striker in a squad practice match, scoring the only goal.
From that day on Merseyside to this, he’s been transformed.
Not only is his enjoyment clear to see, not only has he added goals and assists to Atletico, he’s also injected dynamism to a side that, finally, seems to be shedding some of its bone-dry conservatism and playing with added verve and electricity. Llorente is only one cog in the machine, but his importance and his likelihood to influence Atleti’s progress to their first Champions League semifinal since 2017 have all increased exponentially.
Perhaps Zidane and Setien may, with minor adjustments for Valverde and De Jong, achieve something similar?
Here comes the Champions League, where even tiny tactical decisions, if they click, can win you the biggest prize.