Not only has Mariano Diaz taken Cristiano Ronaldo’s old shirt number at the Santiago Bernabeu, but he has replicated the former Real Madrid forward’s noodle-blonde hairdo. Anyone would think the 25-year-old, who returned to the Spanish capital after a season with Lyon, is trying to step into a certain someone’s shoes.
Mariano is not Ronaldo. At 25 he has been a late bloomer, with last season at Lyon the first time he has played a full season at senior level. Real Madrid fans might have expected a replacement Galactico, someone like Eden Hazard or Kylian Mbappe or maybe even Neymar, but no such signing materialised.
Instead, Real Madrid returned for a player they had let leave the club on the cheap just one year previously, paying €23 million for the privilege. On the face of things, this was somewhat underwhelming. As 13-time European champions, Real Madrid have grown accustomed to the finer, glitzier things in life, and Mariano didn’t quite fit the bill.
But while Real Madrid may have suffered a drop-off in the pedigree of their number sevens, Mariano could prove to be the perfect striker for them. Signed as a squad option, to provide some competition to Karim Benzema, the newbie demonstrated his quality by curling home a stunning strike on his second debut against Roma in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
Benzema had a tough time last season. The Frenchman came in for widespread criticism, scoring just five times in 32 appearances over the course of the whole 2017/18 La Liga campaign. For context, Casemiro, a defensive midfielder, matched that tally. Benzema has since picked up his form, scoring four La Liga goals already this season, but now 30 years old Real Madrid must prepare for further decline.
With this in mind, it would appear that the signing of Mariano was made with the long-term picture in mind. And yet the Spanish striker might be a better fit for Real Madrid in the short-term too. Julen Lopetegui is moulding his team following his shotgun appointment during the summer and he has prioritised cohesion and fluidity over all else. That’s where Mariano could edge out Benzema.
Alongside Ronaldo, Benzema was willing to sacrifice himself for the Portuguese forward. The Frenchman was Ronaldo’s foil. Now, though, there are signs that Benzema will be more selfish. His Real Madrid career depends on whether or not he can raise his goalscoring form. That could come at the cost of a cohesive frontline.
Mariano is also a goalscorer, putting himself above all others as most centre forwards do, but his movement is more dynamic than Benzema’s. He is a clever player who not only knows where the space is for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others around him too. Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Isco and co. will learn to prefer playing with Mariano over Benzema this season.
“Wearing the number seven (shirt) is an enormous responsibility because the players who have worn it in the past were and will continue to be legends.” Mariano explained after his second Real debut against Roma. “It’s a number, and much respect to Cristiano but also to the others who wore it,” he said. “It doesn’t weigh heavy but I feel respect for all of those who have worn it before me.”
The shadow of Ronaldo will be cast over the Santiago Bernabeu and Mariano, the man signed to replace him, for some time yet. But Real Madrid’s new number seven can’t hold himself to the standard of the guy who wore that shirt before him. The appointment of Lopetegui has set a new precedent at the club.
Lopetegui has already revitalised the careers of several Real Madrid players, with Asensio, Bale, Benzema, Dani Ceballos and Isco, most notably, handed something of a reprieve by the surprise exit of Zinedine Zidane at the end of last season and the subsequent hiring of a coach renowned for maximising what he has.
Mariano possesses a similar quality as a player. Benzema might be a bigger name and a more proven goalscorer, but Mariano might ultimately fit Lopetegui’s Real Madrid better.