The saddening news of Xabi Alonso’s sudden departure to Bayern Munich has hurt many Real Madrid fans. But with the chance to step out of his shadow is Asier Illarramendi, who must now prove himself to Carlo Ancelotti.
He's no Alonso
It was always going to be difficult to live up to a €32 million price-tag, but with labels such as the next Alonso being applied to him, Real Madrid fans were hopeful that they had uncovered a gem (though a rather pricey one at that) in Illarramendi.
However the defensive midfielder failed to endear himself to Ancelotti and the Madridistas in his first season at the Bernabeu.
Illarramendi was certainly given his chance last year and did make 49 appearances for Los Blancos, although a large number of those minutes were as a substitute.
An injury to Sami Khedira gifted the 24-year-old an extended run in the first team, but he didn’t pull up any trees, though granted it is often difficult for defensive midfielders to stand out in the modern game.
Ancelotti showed so little faith in Illarramendi, that he was overlooked as Alonso’s replacement in the Champions League final, with Khedira rushed back from injury instead.
With the addition of Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez this season, players needed to leave, and it could so easily have been the Spaniard.
He was linked with a possible loan move to Basque side Athletic Bilbao following their qualification for the Champions League. However, following the departure of Alonso, both he and Khedira look set to stay. Illarramendi must now vindicate Ancelotti’s decision to let him remain at the club.
Many Madrid fans hoped the midfielder would learn from Alonso, become a better player in his presence and develop into the player they thought they had paid for. He has showed flashes of that talent, but in infrequent intervals. Most players take a while to gain the consistency necessary to play at the highest level, but at 24, Illarramendi is no youngster.
Signs of ability
Putting his price to one side, Illarramendi clearly demonstrated ability during his breakout seasons with Real Sociedad. And he did have positive games for Madrid, scoring all three of his career goals under Ancelotti. Perhaps the prospect of playing for Real Madrid daunted him, or the step up to Champions league level was too much for him.
Kroos - also 24 - takes up a central midfield role and has vast Champions League and World Cup experience. There is little to suggest that Ancelotti chooses Illara over the German or any of Madrid’s other midfielders unless he convinces him otherwise.
While Khedira is likely is likely to be first choice, the German has injury problems. Real will also be competing in four competitions this season, so Illarramendi will get his chance. It’s up to the midfielder to convince Ancelotti that among the star names in that Real Madrid squad, he too deserves a place.