Mayoral proving he can take Morata's place backing up Benzema in Madrid
Speaking before Real Madrid's 3-1 victory in Anoeta, Zinedine Zidane expressed his faith in Karim Benzema's understudy, Borja Mayoral. That faith manifested itself in a first start of the season for the 20-year-old striker and Zidane reaped his reward as Mayoral scored one and forced a second off Sociedad defender Kevin Rodrigues, handing his side a 2-1 lead at the break.
Mayoral might not have been in Zidane's line-up at all but for the late withdrawal of Toni Kroos from the squad, forcing the Real boss to drop Isco into his midfield, but the canterano's performance warrants further inspection.
The question facing Mayoral, who was prolific in Real's junior sides, is whether he is destined to be this season's Alvaro Morata or Mariano.
In 2016-17 Morata was the favoured option, scoring 15 league goals in 26 appearances, 14 of which were starts. But that was not enough to persuade him to stay.
Mariano featured as a substitute eight times in La Liga, for a total of 114 minutes, and scored once. The Dominican forward caught the eye in the Copa del Rey, bagging four in two games against Cultural Leonesa, but also decided his career prospects were better served elsewhere.
Both aged 23 last summer, their decisions were understandable and have been vindicated at their new clubs. Morata has three goals and two assists in five Premier League games for Chelsea; Mariano has four strikes in six Ligue 1 matches for Lyon.
Having two back-up strikers is now a distant luxury for Zidane and the probability of additions in that department in January is remote. There is a simple reason Kylian Mbappe preferred a move to PSG, and it was not just his Parisian roots. Karim Benzema is the club's starting striker and will be until he decides otherwise. As Benzema stated recently, if he is starting every game why would he seek his fortune elsewhere?
Timo Werner, Robert Lewandowski or any other first-choice striker linked with the Bernabeu will also have that firmly in mind. For their part, the Real board won't sanction a move for a Champions League-ineligible forward in January. It simply smacks of bad business and on Zidane's watch there has been precious little of that.
From now until the end of the season, Mayoral is Zidane's bet. And the Real boss might have seen enough in Anoeta to up his stake. Picking up Sergio Ramos' attempt at an overhead to hammer the ball past Geronimo Rulli displayed Mayoral's poacher's instinct and he also proved he will be a valuable asset on the counter: his run for Real's second peaked at 30 mph, just five fewer than Gareth Bale's gallop for the third.
In 75 minutes in San Sebastian Mayoral registered three shots (one more than Bale) with two on target and one hitting the side netting, made two successful dribbles (the same number as Marco Asensio) and put in the sort of energetic showing that drew an ovation from the Bernabeu in a 7-1 destruction of Celta back in 2015-16.
Mayoral made six appearances that season and was sent out on loan to Wolfsburg to gain further experience. The timing could not have been worse as The Wolves found themselves embroiled in a relegation battle in 2016-17, whittling through three managers who all preferred to use seasoned campaigners rather than bank their jobs on youthful promise.
Mayoral featured for just 374 minutes in the Bundesliga, scoring twice, in what was basically a wasted season in terms of development as he played only the equivalent of one full game more than he had at the Bernabeu the previous year.
Hardly surprisingly, Mayoral was nonplussed when Wolfsburg attempted to extend his loan deal. "I'm a young player and what I want is to play, to have minutes, to have opportunities," he noted at the time.
Zidane believes, and Mayoral will start to do the same after finally getting off the mark for Real Madrid. On paper, the marriage between Mayoral and Madrid is a perfect union: Zidane needs a willing reserve striker and Mayoral remains at an age where familiarity with the bench will not breed contempt.
Whether that translates to the pitch is up to Zidane. Real brushed aside loan requests for Mayoral in the summer and let both Mariano and Morata move on in a clear statement of intent.
The canterano is not going to dislodge the club's senior players from the side on a regular basis but there are enough games to go around in a three-front season with a Club World Cup distraction thrown in. Mayoral did more than enough in Anoeta to suggest he deserves a fairer crack of the whip than Mariano received last season. Hand him the initiative and he may turn out to be the perfect replacement for Morata.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.