In the photo above, Cristiano Ronaldo can be seen sort of air-humping Casemiro in celebration of the Brazilian midfielder’s just-scored goal. Ronaldo’s exuberance was probably most aroused by the fact that his teammate’s goal gave Real Madrid a commanding position in what wound up being a comfortable 2-1 win against PSG, which saw Madrid advance to the Champions League quarterfinals. But there was probably a part of the Portuguese forward that couldn’t resist jumping his lusophone buddy’s bones because of what Casemiro’s goal and general play represented for the world’s most famous club.
Real Madrid is and has always been a team of superstars. Star wattage, especially in recent years, has been almost as important an aspect to what makes a archetypical Madridista as talent or fit have. The team’s current manager, Zinedine Zidane, is probably the single best example of the club’s Galacticos policy that has brought them so much acclaim and consistent success this century.
However, we shouldn’t forget the other side of club president Florentino Pérez’s Galacticos policy. As Pérez once famously said, the Real teams he sought to build were to be made up of Zidanes and Pavones, referring to Francisco Pavón, a homegrown workman of a Madridista who regularly featured in those teams of Zidane and the real Ronaldo and Luis Figo and the like. The Zidanes would grab the headlines, score the goals, and soak up most of the attention and glory; the Pavónes were to be the ones who did all the thankless work that allowed the Zidanes to run free. And while the current Real Madrid roster has more than its freedom-loving flair players, it was their Pavones who carried them to victory yesterday.
This Real squad isn’t quite as top-heavy as those of the peak Galacticos era, though what it lacks in super-duper stars it more than makes up for in an absurd number of extremely good players. Consider this: Real Madrid lined up for yesterday’s kickoff without any of Toni Kroos, Luca Modrić, Gareth Bale, or Isco on the pitch. That’s two of the three or four best central midfielders in the world, one of the five best forwards of the current generation, and one of the very best young creative midfielders in the game, all missing. Each one of those players would be must-starts on almost every other team still in this competition. There probably isn’t another team in the sport that could make it through a crucial Champions League leg against PSG with four key players like that on the sidelines. And yet Real cruised in Paris last night, in large part because the Pavones who stepped in for those players are so incredibly good.
Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez were the less-heralded names who stepped in for their more famous teammates on the bench, and it was their tireless work ethic that made everything click. Take Madrid’s first goal, for example. It all started when Asensio made sure to charge down Dani Alves when the PSG defender was attempting to build an attack. Asensio was not only able to deflect away Alves’s rushed pass, but also to run onto it, sprint down the pitch despite none of his teammates making any timely supporting runs, keep possession while his teammates caught up with him deep in PSG’s half, and ultimately execute a clever little turn and pass to an on-rushing Vázquez. Asensio’s pass found Vázquez’s in tons of space in the Parisians’ box, and he was able to set up Ronaldo for an easy goal with a pinpoint cross. The entire move was a testament to those two wingers’ selfless running for the team.
Real’s second goal was similar. That time, it was Vázquez harrying a PSG ball carrier and causing a deflection that sparked the fast break from which Casemiro—himself a staple in the Madrid starting lineup but one who focuses almost entirely on the dirty work that allows the creators around him to express themselves without inhibition—managed to score. That second goal, especially in light of Marco Verratti brainlessly shouting himself into a red card earlier in the second half, killed the match off for good, and it was on account of non-stars coming up big when called upon.
(It’s worth mentioning here that for as much of a Pavón as Asensio is in the current setup in Madrid, there are few young players in the world who are more of a lock to one day soon turn into a full-fledged Zidane than this 22-year-old Spanish wunderkind.)
Real Madrid came into the PSG tie on the precipice of a crisis. A strangely lackadaisical start to the league season meant the reigning La Liga champions were completely out of the title picture by about halfway through the season. Similarly inconsistent performances in the Champions League group stage saw them finish second to Tottenham, and allowed them to be drawn against this expensively assembled, attackingly terrifying PSG team in the first knockout round. Lose here, and Zidane would almost certainly be out of his job by the end of the season, with even more drastic roster changes on the way as well. Despite being in the thick of one of the most dominant stretches of continental mastery—let’s not forget, Real are back-to-back Champions League title holders, and have one three of the last four European Cups—Madrid very easily could’ve seen their whole project blown up.
And yet the unprecedented depth and quality of the Real squad—the very thing that has been so pivotal in their European and domestic success in recent years—came through once again and saved the day. Real aren’t out of the woods yet. It’ll probably take at least a UCL semifinal appearance to save Zidane’s job, and after a few quiet transfer windows in a row, Pérez has to be itching to throw around a couple hundred million Euros or so in a dramatic roster shake-up. But in spite of Real’s awful season so far, they’ve just breezed past one of the strongest teams in Europe with ease, and have a great chance of pulling off a Champions League three-peat that would serve as incontrovertible proof that they are the defining team of this era. If they manage to do so, you can bet it’ll be Zidane’s Pavones pulling more than their weight to make it happen.