Marco Asensio should replace Gareth Bale in Real Madrid's starting XI
At first it sounded like a quip from a small section of Real Madrid supporters. However, it has now grown into a state of mind shared by a sizeable bandwagon of fans which adds passengers by the second: Marco Asensio must start for Real Madrid.
Since the season began and despite the stiff competition, the kid has rarely disappointed. In Munich, Asensio added another 30 fantastic minutes to a collection of purposeful, aesthetically pleasing football, a brand that is now becoming a cult.
His addition to the team does not only have to do with his exuberant shape or his ability to generate scoring situations. Having him in the starting XI instead of one of the three forwards also adds more balance to the side, as Asensio gets involved in plenty of build-up plays in midfield, and is extremely generous tracking back to help his teammates in defence. The young talent from Mallorca plays a very attacking brand of football, but is one of those who arrive to offensive positions from midfield, and knows how to link up with Luka Modric & Co.
Zinedine Zidane's issue, then, is a tough one: who should lose their place in the starting XI? Cristiano Ronaldo looks as good as he has this season, and the team desperately need the Portuguese striker, its best scorer. Karim Benzema has improved noticeably of late and, more fit than ever -- after the victory in Munich he explained that he'd lost five kilos in the last six weeks -- he is the all-around forward that can help the side to keep ball possession and find Ronaldo in the final third.
The obvious candidate, therefore, is Gareth Bale. In Zidane's eyes, the Welshman still owns the status of starter, but his last few performances have been quite disappointing. It is quite telling that the French manager has replaced him in the last two matches, against Atletico Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and in the trip to Munich.
It's hard to know whether the team have forgotten how to play with Bale, or if the usually fast winger is now far from his best shape. Most likely it's a combination of both, but the fact is that a starting XI that has shared thousands of minutes with him -- Toni Kroos, Modric, Benzema for instance have been a part of Real Madrid since Bale joined or even earlier -- is incapable of giving the Welshman the ball where he can hurt the opposition the most.
Bale is a very special kind of player. Even though he's not a striker, his participation in the flow of matches when his team have the ball is restricted to very specific attacking situations. He rarely comes down to midfield to create advantage and build an offensive play. Instead, he waits for his chance to get a pass in speed or a ball to face his defender one on one. His plays usually involve a few touches of the ball and a dribble that will be followed by a cross or a shot.
That is why, when Bale isn't well fed (footballistically speaking) or his form isn't good enough to take on defenders, he can't help the team in other ways. He's not keen on defending and does not have the patience to pass the ball around and move in midfield. Bale's mind is in the opposition's goal, and all that is not a cross or a shot is almost an inconvenience.
It's become clear that any line-up with Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo unbalances the team. The first half in Munich was another example. There is always the chance that they score in a moment of inspiration, but with the depth of squad they have, Real Madrid do not need to gamble. The answer is on the bench. Asensio can occupy Bale's spot while the Welshman recovers his top form. And, if Bale takes too much time, he might even find that he's lost it for good.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.