The Real deal - Ligue 1 rising star Mariano Diaz

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The Spanish forward is making up for lost time at Lyon and raced out of the traps in a season he still hopes will end with a World Cup role

There’s life after Real Madrid. Alvaro Morata, Marcos Alonso and Juan Mata have all proven it.

For young players, leaving the academy of such a storied club seemed like it could be the end of their career before it has even really begun, yet there are ample examples to prove this is not the case.

Certainly, Mariano Diaz hopes he can add his name to the list of those who failed to make the grade at Santiago Bernabeu only to strike gold elsewhere. 

After five years in the Spanish capital, which yielded only eight league appearances as well as a single goal, he departed in the summer for Lyon. The fee was a mere €8 million, yet the expectations in France are great given that he has been signed to fill the boots of Alexandre Lacazette.

“We’ve been following him for some time,” president Jean-Michel Aulas admitted in June as a deal neared. “Karim Benzema and Zinedine Zidane have given us good reports on him.

“In the opinion of Zinedine and Karim, he is a player of a very high level. He’s young, powerful and very ambitious. It would be a great coup for Lyon to sign him, and there would not be too much expected of him.”

Mariano Diaz Real Madrid Cultural Copa del Rey

France international Lacazette scored 100 Ligue 1 goals for OL, but Mariano has started to chase him with some relish. Only a couple of months into his adventure in the Rhone Valley, he has struck six times, including a debut double against Strasbourg. 

Indeed, by netting four times in the first five matches, he made the best start to a season by a Lyon striker in 20 years, beating out the likes of Lacazette, Lisandro Lopez and Giovanni Elber.

Diaz Ligue 1 Rising Stars

The real deal? Here are five things you didn't know about rising Lyon star Mariano Diaz. Posted by Goal.com on Wednesday, 11 October 2017

It was a deal seen as a gamble by Aulas, yet the wily mover in the transfer market seems to have struck gold again.

“There was scepticism, which is to be expected because he hadn’t played often in La Liga,” he admitted in September. “But for us, it’s not a surprise, instead it’s confirmation of what we knew he was capable of doing.”

Though he was signed as a replacement to the Arsenal hitman, in truth he is a very different player, which as forced Lyon to change their style.

Lacazette is a far more dynamic presence at the forefront of the attack, capable of bringing others into play either with clever link up or through his intelligent off-the-ball movement. Mariano is far more of a pure striker, a character who hovers around the box, seeking to gobble up opportunities.

Mariano Diaz Lyon Guingamp Ligue 1 10092017

“He’s a real goal scorer,” Lyon assistant boss Gerald Baticle told Eurosport. “When others might want to make a pass, his first idea is to find an angle to shoot towards goal. All his play is in the centre towards goal. 

“Of course, with his first touch he has to raise his head more often to take in more information and make better choices. But in individual raids he’s good because he’s capable of piercing the lines.”

Nabil Fekir, perhaps Lyon’s outstanding player in the early weeks of the season and the man who so often teed up Lacazette, has sung similar praise for him. 

“Our relationship is perfect, he’s a very good player, but different from Alex,” he said. “He must learn how to save his energy by relying on his team-mates.”

As with all players of his ilk, however, when he is not scoring, he is inevitably the subject of criticism.

“He’s powerful, he’s got good timing in the air but he has difficulty in small spaces. That’s the most difficult thing for a centre forward: to see them develop quickly and to get away from the marking,” Bernard Lacombe, Lyon’s record goalscorer, told L’Equipe after Mariano had drawn a blank against PSG and had largely been peripheral to the match.

Mariano Diaz Lyon Rennes

While there is no doubt that he is still raw, a symptom of not having played first-team football regularly, there is no questioning the 24-year-old’s ambition or potential.

He quit international duty with the Dominican Republic after just one friendly appearance, during which he scored against Haiti, in order to chase instead the possibility of playing for Spain.

“It’s a season before the World Cup, and going there would be magnificent. I’ve not yet spoken to coach Julen Lopetgui but I know I’m being watched.

"There’s nothing concrete yet, though,” he told Le Progres. “The Dominican team contacts me often, but I’ve chosen Spain and I want to be called.”

At the rate he is going in France, it does not seem an entirely forlorn hope.

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