Borja Mayoral faces the biggest summer of his fledgling career
This summer could be the biggest of Borja Mayoral's career. The Real Madrid striker has been called back to the Bernabeu after a season-long loan at Wolfsburg and has the opportunity to work his way into Zinedine Zidane's first-team plans for the 2017-18 season.
The spell of the 20-year-old, Madrid-born player in the Bundesliga did not go entirely according to plan, and Wolfsburg's request to extend the arrangement was met with short shrift from club and player. Mayoral has long been viewed as one for the future at Real Madrid, and his move to a dynamic side noted for promoting youth talent was seen as the perfect fit in a season in which Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata would share the No. 9 duties at the Bernabeu.
However, the side that beat Zidane's Real in the quarterfinal first leg of the 2015-16 Champions League were conspicuous by their absence during Mayoral's spell at the Volkswagen Arena, and after missing out on Europe with an eighth-place Bundesliga finish last term, found themselves engulfed in a relegation battle this campaign. Mayoral was restricted to a bit-part role as an increasingly panicked pack of Wolves chewed though three managers in 2016-17, all of them electing to lean on experience rather than raw talent.
Mayoral managed 19 Bundesliga appearances but spent more than an hour on the pitch just three times -- scoring in two of those outings -- as Wolfsburg avoided the drop in a relegation playoff against Eintracht Braunschweig. On the bench for both legs of the decider, it was clear that Mayoral was not key to manager Andries Jonker's plans with veteran forward Mario Gomez handed the task of keeping Die Wolfe in the hunt.
Zidane and Spain under-21 coach Albert Celades are a different matter. The Frenchman has always been a keen admirer of Mayoral, handing him his first senior start in March 2016 against Levante on the back of a 45-minute substitute appearance a week earlier when he replaced Benzema in a 1-0 derby loss to Atletico Madrid. Mayoral would go on to earn another 151 first-team minutes that season as Zidane placed his faith in his Castilla protege.
Then Morata was re-signed from Juventus, and Mayoral found himself surplus to requirements with Mariano promoted to the first-team squad. This summer, the backup-striker is role is very much up for grabs.
Real Madrid are unlikely to make a Galactico signing: Benzema is a firm favourite with president and manager alike. Eternal gossip fodder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski are going to be equally reticent over surrendering starting roles elsewhere for a tussle with the current No. 9, whose international exile only serves to strengthen his position at club level.
That leaves Mayoral in a one-on-one with Mariano to fill the Morata role in the increasingly likely event that the Spain striker, whose club predicament has not altered Julen Lopetegui's appraisal of his worth, decides to seek a more prominent gig elsewhere in a World Cup season.
Mayoral has installed himself as Celades' first-choice striker and will be firmly in the shop window at this summer's European Under-21 Championship, a traditional breeding ground for future La Roja regulars. Flavour of the month Sandro Ramirez may have turned heads at club level with a standout campaign at Malaga but Mayoral has restricted a player who is the subject of interest from a raft of La Liga and Premier League suitors to the bench at international level.
Mayoral recognises that there is no finer advertisement than an Under-21 Euros, and several Madrid players who have made the step up were in touch with him during his foray in the Bundesliga -- a move that not many players in Spain would be willing to take.
"Isco's been asking after me, and [Sergio] Ramos, [Dani] Carvajal, [Kiko] Casilla and Lucas [Vazquez] ... lots of people have been watching how I got along," Mayoral told AS. "It was a tough season but also a learning curve. I would have liked to play more, but in Germany, training is different, there's more contact, and I've become stronger, which I needed. That will serve me well."
In a summer of quiet revolution at Madrid, a silent partner will probably serve Zidane well, too. Morata has become increasingly agitated at his lack of starts and a 24-year-old international has every right to consider his options. For Zidane, Mayoral and Real Madrid, the logic appears simple. Madrid already possess a striker with the ability to provide backup for Benzema and one who will be more than happy to do so for a year or two.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.