Across all sports there is always a night in a young star’s career when everything lines up and we see the kid’s full potential. For any young phenom, that moment is bound to come, the only question is when and where.
On Wednesday January 30th, 2013, at approximately 3PM EST, the soccer world was hit by an earthquake that I don’t think we’ll be forgetting for quite some time. In a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the first leg of the semifinals of Copa Del Rey, we watched a boy become a man in just 90+ minutes, being the key to a massive 1-1 result at the Santiago Bernabeu.
If you haven’t heard the name Raphael Varane, I can guarantee you do now after witnessing the first shining moment for one of the world’s next great defenders. The 19 year old, yes let me repeat myself, THE 19 YEAR OLD, in one of the biggest stages of soccer competition played brilliant, spectacular, heroic, incredible, fantastic, extraordinary, and any other positive adjective, soccer, in an absolute jaw dropping performance.
Coming into the game tons of Madrid fans worried about the back four. Top defenders: Marcelo, Coentrao, Ramos and Pepe all unavailable for the contest had many wondering just how Real Madrid could survive the best attack in the world not at full strength. Well the answer came from the young Frenchman time and time again. Each and every time they needed a tackle he provided it. When a shot was blocked it was him, if a breakdown occurred he was there. Raphael Varane I dare say played one of the best games I can remember in recent memory from a defender.
Playing alongside the likes of an aging Ricardo Carvalho, who looked suspect to say the least, Alvaro Arbeloa, playing on his unnatural left side and Michael Essien, a central midfielder by trade on the right, Varane was asked to use his freakish athletic abilities to hold everything together. At 6’3″, his imposing frame continually pushed Barca players off the ball, dominating them in the air and slid into challanges many other players are incapable of making. His pace allowed him to catch Fabregas on what looked like a clear goal, his intelligence helped position himself for a perfect clearance off the line, and his jumping ability provided the impeccable header behind the game tying goal. Varane was the best player on the field for either team.
Please remember this wasn’t a game against Rayo or Espanyol, this was against Barcelona the best team in the world. Against the likes of Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro and Xavi. With attacks coming from every which direction, Varane was there each and everytime. The lone Barca goal came on a fluky turnover and an unfortunate drop off of a back tracking midfielder, which left Fabregas onside to chip home the Catalans only goal. That goal came through Carvalho’s side, much like most of the chances Barca had on the evening. Including Pedro’s breakaway, Xavi’s rip (cleared off the line by Varane), Alves’s long distance strike, and any foul committed around the area.
If he made one mistake all evening it might have been when he got caught on Jordi Alba’s penetrating run, which newly acquired transfer Diego Lopez provided the palm save late in the second half. However, the run and ball were timed perfectly, met with impeccable touch and acute precision on the pass, so it’s hard to fault the Frenchman for this.
On a night where the biggest stars in the world were thought to be the brightest attractions, the newcomer proved to be far brighter, as he captivated the crowd and turned the soccer world upside down with his coming out party.
One thing is for sure, the Barcelona players know who Raphael Varane is after this contest. With a few more performances like this one, Varane will solidify himself as one of the top center backs in the world. His intangibles were scary to see out of someone so young and and his understanding, leadership, and communication, honestly were things I thought a 19 year old with little professional experience was incapable of showing. Up against one of the most complex offensive systems in the world, both technically and tactically Varane was the fort Madrid needed to get a good result out of this contest.
While Barceona had the better of the possession, run of play and scoring chances, looking at the whole contest, Madrid also had their moments to take the lead, equalize and make the game end in quite different fashion. If this match doesn’t get you excited for leg two at the Camp Nou…nothing will. The high energy affair was chippy, electric, fast paced and more technical than any soccer match up arguably ever in the history of soccer. These teams are as talented, athleticly gifted, and well coached as anything we have ever seen and if you missed the contest, I plead you to watch the second leg on February 26th because it is sure to be a doozy.