Real Madrid are not too familiar with the feeling of being put under pressure in Champions League semi-finals. So when Chelsea did their utmost to blow down their defensive wall on Tuesday night, it was a surprise to see Eder Militao leading the resistance.
Karim Benzema may have stolen the limelight after his emphatic equaliser secured a 1-1 draw against the Blues in their Champions League semi-final first leg at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.
But another impressive display from Militao, a player who has largely struggled to meet the lofty expectations of Madrid fans and pundits, did not go unnoticed. Indeed, he was voted man of the match ahead of Benzema by Marca readers in a poll on their website.
Increasingly, the Brazilian is becoming a defensive linchpin for Zinedine Zidane in the absence of Sergio Ramos and is showing signs that the LaLiga champions’ hefty investment is finally paying off — and perhaps long-term admirers Liverpool and Manchester United missed a trick in failing to capture his signature two years ago.
The 23-year-old arrived in a £43m deal from FC Porto in March 2019, which at the time made him Madrid’s most expensive defensive acquisition in their history. And after inevitable comparisons were made with former Real man Pepe, the pressure told as he failed to make an impression.
The defender has only featured on 14 occasions for Los Blancos in all competitions this season, with five of those outings coming in the Champions League as Real continue their quest to clinch their 14th European title.
But with Sergio Ramos sidelined with injury, Zinedine Zidane was forced to draft in Militao to replace him, slotting in alongside Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence.
Despite being sold a crafty nutmeg from Mason Mount, the towering centre-back’s resilient performance attracted acclaim from compatriot and Real legend Roberto Carlos, who praised his “incredible”display against the Premier League side.
“He is in an incredible moment,” he told Spanish publication AS.
“We are a family and he knows what it represents for the club. He always has great joy in the dressing room and I am very happy for him.”
Liverpool, Man Utd transfer links
Militao’s career trajectory could have been very different had he spurned Real’s advances in order to head to the Premier League, with Liverpool and Manchester United both keen while he was at Porto.
He eventually headed to the Santiago Bernabeu while United splashed out £80 million, a world-record fee for a defender, to bring in Harry Maguire from Leicester City.
Liverpool were not short of options at the back with Joel Matip and Joe Gomez competing to partner Virgil van Dijk.
But after the Dutchman suffered an ACL injury in October 2020, the Premier League champions’ mounting injury problems this season forced Jurgen Klopp to dip into the January transfer market for a replacement.
Having been left out in the cold at Madrid, Militao was presented as a viable loan option. Klopp eventually swooped to sign Turkish defender Ozan Kabak on a six-month loan from Stuttgart as well as the surprise signing of Ben Davies from Preston.
It is well documented that Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been tracking a new centre-back to add to his squad, despite recently handing Eric Bailly a new deal until 2024.
And with Militao finding form and his ability to operate as a full-back, he could soon reappear on the Norwegian’s radar come this summer, although they could face a fight from their Merseyside rivals.
The successor to Ramos?
Militao has now started eight consecutive games since being left on the bench against Celta Vigo on March 20 and in four of their last five matches, Real have kept a clean sheet. It’s no coincidence that his form has contributed to those shut-outs, even with Ramos out injured.
It may be premature to suggest his recent upturn in form would keep Ramos out of the team when he is fit — such is the perennial presence of the Spain international. According to reports in Spain, it is even believed the Real Madrid captain could return in time to face Chelsea for the second leg at Stamford Bridge.
But Militao is still in the early stages of his career and like Ramos when he arrived from Sevilla in 2005, appears to be gradually adjusting to the high demands that come with playing for Spain’s most successful club.
There are doubts over whether Ramos, 35, will prolong his 16-year stay in the capital, as he is yet to commit his future with his current deal expiring this summer.
In the event that their long-serving captain decides to depart, Zidane may be spared with searching for a suitable long-term replacement. That is, if he decides to retain his faith in Militao.
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