On Tuesday, as all hell broke loose at Camp Nou when Lionel Messi served his notice to leave Barcelona via burofax, Real Madrid were beating Benfica 3-2 in Switzerland in the UEFA Youth League final.
The Juvenil A side’s triumph was Madrid’s first since the tournament was founded in 2013. Indeed, this was Real’s first appearance in the final of the competition.
The Under-19 mini-tournament was played at the Colovray Stadium; as with the Champions League, it was concluded in one-off matches at a single venue because of coronavirus.
As Barca disintegrate, Madrid can look on from a position of relative security during this brief break between seasons.
They have recaptured the Liga title, Zinedine Zidane is a firmly popular choice in the managerial hotseat – and the club has achieved its European success, albeit at underage level.
Madrid – coached by Blancos icon Raul – went ahead in the 26th minute when Pablo Rodriguez headed home Sergio Arribas’ teasing cross from six yards.
The Spanish side doubled their advantage on the stroke of half-time when Henrique Jocu turned Arribas’ cross into his own net.
Benfica pulled one back in the 49th minute, but Madrid restored their two-goal advantage a minute later courtesy of Miguel Gutierrez’s low finish at the back post.
Benfica scored from a corner in the 57th minute to reduce the deficit again, and the Portuguese side were handed a golden opportunity to draw level in the 68th minute but Madrid goalkeeper Luis Lopez pawed away Tiago Dantas’ penalty, and made several more key saves, ensuring the title went back to Spain.
Real’s triumph was a team effort; no single player scored more than four goals in the whole competition. But goalkeeper Lopez and final-winning left-back Gutierrez, who regularly trains with Zidane’s first team, are among the standouts, as is 17-year-old striker Israel Salazar, who has scored more than 150 goals at age-group levels.
However, the cream of the crop is assist king Arribas. The young Spanish midfielder was arguably the best player on show in Nyon. He was moved by Raul into a false nine role and dominated against Benfica.
An all-action player who demands the ball at every opportunity, Arribas possesses a deep bag of tricks to go with his confidence; he can create openings either just behind the striker, or by dropping deep to escape a high press.
Doubts persist at Real about whether Arribas is lightweight at this stage of his career, and it looks likely the 18-year-old will be posted with the B team – Castilla – next season in order to bulk him up in readiness for senior action.
If he plays with Castilla next season, Arribas would link up again with Raul, who stepped up to manage the B team in June 2019 but was in caretaker charge of the U19s for this final.
Raul temporarily took charge this summer when Dani Poyatos left to coach Panathinaikos. Real decided not to immediately appoint a new full-time coach with the U19 domestic season ended early by coronavirus.
He had no coaching experience before his involvement at Real – he was an ambassador for the club before being invited to manage the U15s, then Castilla – but Raul came through the youth system and knows what the players require.
He has impressed both with a young squad at Castilla and now with Juvenil A and is tipped within Real as a successor to Zidane.
Youth League victory completed a double for Juvenil A, having won their league – Division de Honor Juvenil de Futbol Group 5 – by four points from local rivals Atletico Madrid.
This is the most successful season at U19 level for the crop aiming to follow current first-team luminaries including Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez and Federico Valverde – and a lot of that is down to Raul.
The former No.7 spent 16 years at Real and is their second all-time top scorer – behind only Cristiano Ronaldo – with 323 goals from a club record 741 appearances. He has taken that attacking focus into coaching, while also proving a disciplinarian.
Senior figures are impressed by Raul’s banning of mobile phones before matches, as well prohibiting youth players buying expensive cars or showing up in jewellery or designer clothes. All Castilla players must wear club tracksuits before and after games.
Raul’s reputation and focus earns him unquestioned respect, and with good reason. With six Liga titles and three Champions League crowns, scoring in two of the finals, few players know what it takes to succeed at Santiago Bernabeu better than him.
Stepping up from Castilla to the senior role is not a guaranteed path to glory. Zidane succeeded; Santiago Solari failed.
Raul, however, is a club legend more in the mould of the Frenchman than the Argentine and would command respect. It is early to say, but the former Spain captain is a coach with a serious future and will be a contender for the main Madrid role whenever the current incumbent departs.
“This is an extraordinary team and we were hungry to win this tournament,” Raul said after the final whistle on Tuesday. “This is comparable with some of the biggest moments I experienced as a player. It’s wonderful and I’d like to congratulate the lads because this is a huge step in their careers.
“It’s a historic day. I’ve been lucky enough to experience many beautiful things and this is another one of those. How these lads have competed in all four games despite not being used to playing so often, they should be immensely proud.”
Having guided the U19s to European success, it remains to be seen whether Raul will continue his dual role in 2020-21, with Spanish football still at the mercy of coronavirus.
Nevertheless, on a playing and coaching level, the future looks bright for Real – and certainly when compared to Barca.