Last weekend against Rayo Vallecano, Xabi Alonso played his first competitive game for five and a half months. Turning 32 this month, the Spanish World Cup winner is in the final year of his Real Madrid contract with no plans yet announced to extend his time at the Bernabeu.
While the midfielder is unsure of his next destination – which could be the Premier League: rumours rumble about a return to his former club Liverpool – he has privately ruled out a number of potential suitors due to his previous loyalties. (Bad news for Roberto Martinez, who might love to introduce him to Everton's midfield on a free transfer.)
When he left Anfield in 2009, Reds fans were bemused by the style of expensive new acquisition Alberto Aquilani, who simply wasn't a like-for-like replacement. For what would turn out to be his last season on Merseyside, Rafa Benitez was restructuring his double pivot. The problem was caused by the lack of deep-lying playmakers in world football; unable to find a direct substitute, managers are forced to change the midfield dynamic.
Liverpool and Benitez struggled without Alonso, and so have Real Madrid this season. The midfield has looked disjointed as new boss Carlo Ancelotti, struggling to find the right balance, has tried Asier Illaramendi and Luka Modrić in the holding role; he has also experimented with a three-man triangle, Illaramendi sitting behind Modrić and Sami Khedira.
Having joined this summer from Real Sociedad, Illaramendi has gradually settled into the Madrid team. Although a more than adept passer of the ball, his strengths lie in making tackles and breaking up the play. As Tottenham fans know, Modrić can play as a deep-lying playmaker albeit a little more mobile, but it's not his natural game and there's a sense that it restricts his movement. Alongside Khedira, there's a strong feeling that the Croatian should push further up the pitch.
Ancelotti certainly values the playmaker position and knows how to use those who possess the attributes. In the press room before the Champions League clash with Juventus, the Italian compared Alonso to perhaps the world's most highly-regarded deep-lying playmaker.
"Xabi Alonso and [Andrea] Pirlo are two fantastic players, with intelligence, and it is lucky for a team to have a player of this type and this standard," said Ancelotti. "I was very lucky to have Pirlo at Milan and now I am lucky to have Xabi at Real Madrid."
Clearly such players are both crucial and rare, and there's every chance that next August, the Italian might well be in the market for the next Pirlo or Alonso.
Meet the new Xabi Alonso
On Saturday afternoon, Madrid play host to Real Sociedad – former home of Illaramendi and, further back, Xabi Alonso. The game will throw up interesting comparisons with a young man cut from the same cloth: Rúben Pardo.
He recently turned 21, but it's just over two years since Pardo made his first-team debut. His talent was obvious but he would have to bide his time in order to progress at the Basque club. In 2011/12, 15 of his 17 appearances were from the bench; last season, he started 12 and came on a further 15 times. This season, he has already made seven starts under new boss Jagoba Arrasate.
"I am very satisfied with Arrasate," says Pardo. "He helps me and tells me how he wants to play. I expect to have more chances this season. Last season I did not have the full confidence of the coach."
It's a harsh assessment of his time under Philippe Montanier, the Frenchman who guided the club to the Champions League and only suffered two league losses in the final six months of the season, but his importance to the team is growing.
The stats tell the story. All three of Real Sociedad's defeats in the league this season came when Pardo wasn't in the starting line-up. It was his goal against Valencia that gave his side all three points, ending a run of eight games without win. Out of the squad players that have started three games or more, no one has a higher pass completion rate.
He has been used more this season than a number of first-team regulars of last year, but whether he starts in Madrid might give us a better understanding of how the coach really views his progress. Pardo was a substitute at Barcelona and Manchester United, and against Atlético Madrid at home; Arrasate may currently have reservations over his maturity to cope in the bigger matches.
That said, Pardo started against Manchester United at the Anoeta, and staked his claim that he is ready for the harder tests. No one in the Sociedad team completed more passes, even though he was withdrawn with 18 minutes remaining. His link-up with Alberto De la Bella was particularly impressive, as the left-back provided an attacking threat on the wing.
Pardo is not the complete midfielder: forwards Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela have averaged more tackles per game. That's partly down to the team's predilection for pressing high, and partly due to the midfielder being better suited to interceptions and recovering the ball. As his experience grows, so will his ability to read the game without possession – like Alonso.
It's highly probable that Pardo would be happy to take on the mantle from Alonso when he departs, though he will likely play down any comparisons with his fellow No.14 – or any player, for that matter. "I do not think about replacing Illarramendi or anyone else," he insisted shortly after his team-mate left in the summer. "I just work to play as much as possible and to help La Real."
That's not to say he doesn't consider his peers carefully. His admiration for fellow professionals will not only keep his feet on the ground, but help improve his overall game. This week he displayed his affection for a player outside Spain: "Ryan Giggs showed he is still at the top, top level," enthused the youngster barely half the Manchester United man's age. "What a fantastic player. For me he is an absolute star. Look at his age and how he can still perform at this level."
Pardo can expect to elevate his own level soon. Back in April, Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez contacted Real Sociedad with a €12 million offer. As the Basque club's president Jokin Aperribay told Marca, "Real Madrid made a bid for him at the time and we told them no." It's understood that they were told to pay his buyout clause of €30 million or walk away.
Pérez, who remains keen on Pardo, had wanted to bring in the youngster so that he could learn off Alonso; instead, the youngster could end up replacing the older man. With the clubs having done business recently over Illaramendi, they might just be returning to the table to negotiate over Pardo in the not too distant future.
ANALYSIS Michael Cox on Illarramendi, Isco and Carvajal
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