MARCH 21 ― Even the most casual followers of European football will be very well acquainted with many of the superstars of Real Madrid.
The club’s talismanic forward and all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, is one of the most recognisable faces in the world, and his attacking partners Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema are also well established among the game’s elite.
In defence, for many people captain Sergio Ramos and hard-nosed Portuguese veteran Pepe capture the never say die essence of the team, while flamboyant and big-haired Brazilian international Marcelo is generally regarded as the best attacking full-back playing today.
In midfield, former Tottenham star Luka Modric and ex-Bayern Munich man Toni Kroos are widely admired for their smooth passing skills, which allows them to make the art of keeping possession look easy.
More knowledgeable fans of the European game would also be able to talk at length about more of Madrid’s players even if they don’t always start, such as Colombian star James Rodriguez, silky smooth Spanish creator Isco, on the rise back-up striker Alvaro Morata and non-stop right-back Dani Carvajal.
And then there’s the manager, one of the most iconic sporting figures of the last few decades: Zinedine Zidane.
All told, Real Madrid are hardly a club which lacks publicity, and the majority of their players are famous enough to draw a sizeable crowd of admirers practically anywhere in the world.
But the player who I believe is their most important, and has the biggest role to play over in their silverware ambitions between now and the end of the season, is a man who only the most dedicated of fans would easily identify if he was walking down a street: Casemiro.
On Saturday I was in Bilbao to watch Casemiro play a vital role in his team’s 2-1 victory which maintained their lead at the top of La Liga over Barcelona heading into the international break.
The fact that he scored the winning goal, tapping home Kroos’s corner, was appropriate but really incidental. His more important work was done elsewhere, blocking the dangerous approaches of the home team, who were repeatedly frustrated by Casemiro’s ability to get into the right place at the right time to break up opposition attacks.
The stats tell the story: during the course of the 90 minutes, he made eight tackles (double the number of any other player on the pitch), four interceptions (more than any Madrid player except Ramos) and four clearances (the third-highest of all players), making a total of 16 attacks which were disrupted by Casemiro.
He also showed his dark side by tallying another game high with four fouls, one of which saw him extremely fortunate to escape a booking after swiping away the ankles of Bilbao’s most dangerous player, Inaki Williams ― although he did get booked for a lesser offence a little later.
And it’s certainly true that opposition players must find Casemiro a horrible man to play against. He is, without doubt, Madrid’s dirtiest player. Tactical fouls, sneaky kicks, unseen nudges and outright intimidation are all part of his arsenal, making him extremely unpopular with opposing fans.
But every team needs a bit of the devil, and Casemiro provides that in a midfield which, with Modric and Kroos, is otherwise technically brilliant but just a bit too nice.
A large part of Casemiro’s importance is his uniqueness. Madrid have plenty of players who can put the ball in the back of the net: if Ronaldo doesn’t, Bale or Benzema will.
Or if they’re all injured or out of form, they can always call upon back-ups like Morata, James and the underrated Lucas Vazquez. And if all else fails, they can always rely upon Ramos to pop up with a header from a corner.
In defence, too, Ramos and Pepe have able back-ups in Raphael Varane and Nacho, with the latter also perfectly capable of providing solid cover in both full-back positions.
All over the pitch Real Madrid are well covered with high-quality back-ups in case of need: Morata for Benzema, Vazquez for Bale, James for Ronaldo, Isco for Modric if someone goes down, someone else of nearly equal quality is available to step forward.
The only exception, however, is Casemiro, because they just do not have another player in the squad capable of doing the things he does. Mateo Kovacic, the energetic young Croatian, is probably the closest they’ve got to a direct replacement, but he doesn’t possess anything like the same quality of defensive attributes.
And indeed, Casemiro’s importance to the team is most evident from what happens when he’s not there.
When he was out of action with injury for a couple of months in the autumn, Madrid suffered their first dip of the season by immediately going four games without a win, and failing to keep a single clean sheet in the first ten games of his absence.
He did not play in the 3-3 draw against Las Palmas earlier this month, and he was also missing a few days later when they played poorly but scraped a 2-1 home win over Real Betis.
Perhaps most tellingly, he was left out by manager Zinedine Zidane for the start of December’s Clasico trip to Barcelona, having just returned to fitness.
After an hour, Madrid were losing 1-0 and struggling. Casemiro came on, they enjoyed the better of the closing stages and grabbed a point through a late header from Ramos ― with the draw only secured when Casemiro made a goal-line clearance in the very last minute. Zidane is unlikely to leave him out of games of such magnitude in the future.
Casemiro isn’t the most technically gifted of Madrid’s superstar ensemble, and he’s almost certainly the least famous. His contributions are rarely spectacular or, unless he’s fouling someone, even particularly noticeable.
But they are very important, and if his team are to win anything in the next couple of months, he will be a big part of the reason.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.