Hakimi & Theo's Milan derby: Why did Real Madrid sell the two most exciting full-backs in the world for just €60m?

Achraf Hakimi Zinedine Zidane Theo Hernandez Inter AC Milan Real Madrid GFX
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The attack-minded full-backs were deemed surplus to requirements at Santiago Bernabeu by Zinedine Zidane, but they are now excelling in Serie A

It takes a special player to impress Ronaldo, but Inter's jet-heeled wing-back Achraf Hakimi is once such player.

"Sometimes I think: 'Ronnie, imagine you and him,' Brazil legend Ronaldo revealed in an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport. "We would go at a decent speed!

"Inter have signed an extraordinary player in Hakimi. It was a mistake for Real Madrid to let him go."

Inter fans would wholeheartedly agree with their former forward, which is why the Corriere dello Sport provoked panic among the Nerazzurri faithful on Saturday morning by claiming that Hakimi could be reclaimed by Real.

"Pay for Hakimi or we'll take him back" screamed the headline on the front page of the Rome-based newspaper.

The Corriere claimed that Madrid had been unsettled by the current financial uncertainty at Inter and were demanding guarantees that they would receive the first instalment of the €40 million (£36m/$45m) transfer fee they agreed with the Nerazzurri for the Morocco international last summer.

It was already known that the first payment had been postponed from December until March, but doubt was now being cast over the validity of the agreement, and it was suggested that Real now wanted their money right away.

The Corriere was essentially implying that if Inter did not pay up, Hakimi would be brought back to the Bernabeu.

It looked like pure speculation and so it proved, with Madrid immediately rubbishing the report. However, one could see why Inter supporters were so spooked. Hakimi has been sensational since arriving at San Siro.

Achraf Hakimi Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid Inter GFX

After excelling on the right flank during a two-year loan at Borussia Dortmund, he has unsurprisingly proven ideally suited to Antonio Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation at Inter.

The 22-year-old has already scored six goals in all competitions this season, registered four assists and won the ball back in the final third (17 times) more than any other defender across Europe's 'Big Five' leagues.

Given Trent Alexander-Arnold's struggles, Hakimi could certainly lay claim to being the best attacking right-back in the world right now, which is particularly exciting because on Tuesday he will go up against arguably the best attacking left-back in the world right now: Theo Hernandez.

The Milan derby never needs any extra storylines. It is an epic in its own right. But there is no denying that the meeting of Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will prove particularly enticing to casual football fans.

However, Hakimi's direct battle with Theo could decide the game. At the very least, it will guarantee excitement. Like Hakimi, Theo is a former Madrid player. And like Hakimi, he is now starring in Serie A.

It is hard not to wonder, then, why on earth Madrid allowed two full-backs brimming with potential to move to San Siro for a combined €60m (£54m/$67m).

Hakimi's exit was particularly puzzling. His talent was obvious, his growth at Dortmund exponential. He had not just excelled in the Bundesliga, he had also lit up the Champions League.

Indeed, his two-goal haul in Dortmund's dramatic 3-2 win over Inter during their group-stage clash in November 2019 played a pivotal role in his eventual move to Milan.

Conte went on an infamous rant that night about his lack of strength in depth, and he was eventually appeased by his employers with a spate of signings. However, the Italian coach labelled Hakimi Inter's most "important investment" of last summer's transfer window.

Achraf Hakimi Antonio Conte Inter GFX

Conte had also been key to convincing him to join.

"I chose Inter because I think the coach's style is particularly suited to my way of playing," Hakimi explained in a Q&A hosted by Inter.

"Conte is a great coach, with a very competitive spirit. He has this extraordinary passion for football and transmits that to his players, fans, and everyone around the club. His motivation allows the side to be fired up for every game.

"I already played 3-5-2 at Borussia Dortmund. When the offer came, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to grow, as the fans here experience football in such a special way. I have joined a great club."

He knows he left a great one too, though. Hakimi's love of Real Madrid is beyond question. He has said that Bernabeu remains his home, revealing in an Instagram post that Los Blancos played a pivotal role in becoming the person he is today.

So, why did they let him go? Only Madrid know, as all we have heard to date is that "Zidane is the reason for Hakimi's transfer to Inter", according to the player's agent, Martin Camano. "He must explain why Hakimi moved."

Zidane, though, has refused to get into precisely why he did not think Hakimi wouldn't have proven an ideal replacement for, or excellent alternative to, Dani Carvajal at right-back.

In an era in which the role of the full-back has become so important, Hakimi could undoubtedly have added an extra dimension to Madrid's attacking play, and one can only imagine the damage he and Theo could be doing working in tandem for Los Blancos this season.

Theo Hernandez Paolo Maldini AC Milan GFX

Of course, Ferland Mendy is doing a decent job on the left for Zidane, and proved particularly influential during the title run-in last season.

However, the Frenchman certainly does not ask anywhere near as many questions of opposition defences as Theo, who has scored four goals for Milan this season, and created a further five.

The 23-year-old has also won more duels (184) than any other defender in Europe's 'Big Five' leagues this season, and ranks second for completed dribbles (51), so it's easy to understand why former Milan and Brazil ace Serginho says there is no better left-back in the game right now.

He has his flaws, of course, just like Hakimi, whose final ball sometimes lets him down. But these are two players that still have enormous room for growth.

Theo was tormented by Federico Chiesa in Juventus' recent 3-1 win at San Siro, but his rate of progress since arriving at San Siro in 2019 has been remarkable, and Paolo Maldini's admiration is evidence of that.

It was Milan's technical director who convinced Theo to leave Madrid and the legendary left-back has unsurprisingly taken a special interest in his development.

Indeed, after Theo's injury-time winner against Lazio in December, the normally reserved Maldini dashed from the stands to the pitch to celebrate a vital victory with the players. Theo was the first player he sought out to congratulate.

"That the best full-back of all time hugged me after the game is just fantastic!" the €20m (£18m/$22.5m) bargain buy gushed in his post-match interview with DAZN.

On Tuesday, then, Ronaldo favourite Hakimi is set to take on Maldini protege Theo in a mouthwatering match-up between two flawed but fantastic full-backs.

For most observers, it will make for thrilling viewing. For Madrid and their followers, though, it may well be tinged with regret.

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