MAY 16 ― There was a quiet and understated but crucially important moment during Real Madrid's 4-1 home victory over Sevilla on Sunday, which took Zinedine Zidane's team a step closer to becoming Spanish champions for the first time since 2012.
There were also, naturally, several crucially important moments which were neither quiet nor understated, serving to turn the game in an obvious manner.
Firstly, there was a controversial opening goal scored by the unlikely figure of Real deputy full-back Nacho, whose quick thinking allowed him to convert a quickly taken free-kick which nobody else in the stadium, except the referee, was ready for.
Then Steven Jovetic became the key protagonist, with the Sevilla forward twice hitting the bar before finally finding the target to make it 2-1 early in the second half, bringing his team right back into the game.
Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo stepped forward to score a brilliant goal, restoring Real's two goal advantage and effectively sealing the outcome with 13 minutes remaining.
Important as those moments were, however, none of them were as critical to the actual pattern of the game as something else which happened early in the second half, shortly after Jovetic scored for Sevilla: the introduction of Casemiro as a substitute.
Defensive midfielder Casemiro is one of the least celebrated members of Real's superstar squad. Most of the Brazilian's work comprises the “ugly” aspects of football ― making tackles, winning headers, intercepting passes ― and he can rarely be seen near the opposition penalty area.
But in terms of the team's overall structure and balance, allowing them to play effectively as a well organised group, he is absolutely essential ― and Sunday's game showed exactly why.
In the first half, with Casemiro off the pitch, Sevilla were able to attack at will. In addition to Jovetic twice hitting the woodwork, they created several more chances and looked capable of scoring every time they came forward.
Indeed, when Jovetic did score early in the second half it was no surprise whatsoever, and at that stage it looked pretty likely that Sevilla would net again considering the balance of play until that moment.
Real's problem, not just on Sunday night but in general, is that they can lack balance because all their midfielders, except Casemiro, are forward thinking players.
Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Isco and James Rodriguez are all superb ball players, capable of maintaining possession and creating chances with their precise passing. But they do not have defensive instincts, and that leaves their defence dangerously exposed whenever they lose possession.
An illuminating specific example came on Sunday night, when centre back Sergio Ramos decided he fancied running forward to join an attack in open play. The ball was lost, Sevilla countered and none of Real's midfielders had shown the presence of mind to drop back and cover for Ramos, leaving them outnumbered at the back.
On that occasion they got away with it because Seville misplaced a pass, but it was a stark demonstration of how vulnerable Real Madrid were looking, and it wouldn't have happened if Casemiro was on the pitch: he would have spotted the situation, realised the need to temporarily replace Ramos in defence and automatically dropped back into the right position.
Recognising this, Real coach Zidane brought Casemiro into the action in place of James, and the game completely changed: Sevilla were denied the space they had previously found so easily, they didn't come close to scoring again and Real ultimately ran out comfortable winners with two late goals.
It’s surprising that one man can make such a big difference, but it was also nothing new because Casemiro has been badly missed by his teammates whenever he has been absent this season ― he was off the pitch, for example, when Barcelona scored a dramatic late winner to keep the title race alive in last month’s Clasico.
Real now have just two league games remaining, at Celta Vigo on Wednesday night and at Malaga on Sunday, and they need four points to ensure winning the title before then heading into the big season finale with the Champions League final against Juventus.
Casemiro, you can be sure, will start all three games. He is so important to the team’s structure that Zidane cannot afford to be without him. The French coach is a big lover of a rotation policy, sharing playing time almost equally among his squad, and the strategy is working well because he possesses world-class talent in nearly every position.
One player he simply must play in the most important games, however, is Casemiro, because nobody else in the squad can do what he does.
We can fully expect that deficit to be rectified by Zidane in the summer, either with a venture into the transfer market or by the return of impressive youngster Marcos Llorente from a loan spell at Alaves.
For now, though, just three games are separating Real from their first league and European double since 1958 and Casemiro, even more than Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos or Sergio Ramos, will be the first name on Zidane’s teamsheet. As we saw again on Sunday, they are nowhere near as good without him.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.