By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Raphael Varane is ready. The 19-year-old defender was handed a surprise start in the first leg of Real Madrid's Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona at the end of January, and in his very first Clasico, he turned in a man-of-the-match display which included several saving tackles, pace, poise, positioning and the equalising goal which kept his team in the tie when the Catalans looked as if they could take control.
In the second leg at Camp Nou, Varane was outstanding once more as he made one last-ditch tackle in the area and added yet another goal with a crashing header to make it 3-0 before Jordi Alba's late consolation. The defender scored two goals in the tie (the same as Cristiano Ronaldo) and saved a number of others. Yet perhaps even more incredibly for his first and second Clasico clashes, he did not commit one single foul in either match.
In the space of just one-and-a-half seasons, Varane has gone from being Madrid's fifth-choice centre-back, to their fourth, third, second and now perhaps even their first, moving above Ricardo Carvalho, Raul Albiol and, most recently, Pepe, in the pecking order.
|VARANE'S BARCELONA BRILLIANCE
| MAN OF THE MATCH AT THE BERNABEU
|4.5||The 19-year-old Frenchman acquitted himself extremely well, making a few perfectly timed challenges, and showing an excellent turn of pace. But his best contribution was a potentially priceless equaliser.|
| A ROCK IN THE SECOND LEG AT CAMP NOU
|4.5||Fantastic again for Los Blancos as they limited the impact of Messi with some quick pressing and well-timed tackling. The centre-back also rose highest to head home Madrid's third.|
In the meantime, however, the teenager's next task will be to help Real overcome Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League at Old Trafford.
But had things turned out differently, Varane could have been playing in red on Tuesday, and not white.
Sir Alex Ferguson was a big admirer of the French teenager and Manchester United looked set to win the race for the stylish defender in the summer of 2011.
Zinedine Zidane changed all that. The France great travelled to Lens on a charm offensive to persuade Varane to sign for Madrid and not United. A starry-eyed Raphael was subtly seduced: how could he say no to the player he grew up idolising and cheered to victory in the 1998 World Cup as a football-mad five-year-old? He couldn't.
"I played an active role in his transfer," Zidane said later. "He is a quality player and has an incredible future ahead of him."
Indeed, in an era when top-class central defenders are in short supply, Madrid had signed a man who could conceivably play for over a decade at the Santiago Bernabeu. And after his dynamic displays this term, the player's initial six-year deal (which runs until 2017) is set to be renewed sooner rather than later.
Varane has been constantly compared to Madrid legend and former club captain Fernando Hierro, as well as French World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, but already looks likely to go on and become better than both.
"Varane has the same intelligence, the same calmness on the ball and the same presence as Laurent Blanc on the pitch," Jose Mourinho told France Football in an interview. "But with all due respect to Blanc, Varane is much faster. For now, he is still a kid. But I hope and think that when he reaches maturity at 26-27 he will be better than Blanc."
And Hierro also praised the youngster. "Varane is very good," Hierro said recently. "He's magnificent and he's got it all. He's a player with good ball control, good positioning and he's very fast. He's also strong in the air in both boxes."
Raphael is tall with extraordinary aerial ability, pace, poise, timing, technique and - as his two Clasico strikes showed - even has an excellent eye for goal. He has all the attributes to go on and become the world's best defender - and no apparent weaknesses.
Indeed, with his pace, height and long legs, Varane would be the one player possibly able to contain the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo on the forward's romantic return to Old Trafford this week. But unfortunately for Ferguson, the Frenchman, like the Portuguese, will be playing for Real Madrid on Tuesday.
Follow Ben Hayward on