?Defending league and European champions Real Madrid have not, as you may have noticed, had an ideal start to the season.

Their controversial home win over 19th-placed Malaga at the weekend keeps them in fourth, level on points with Atletico Madrid, four behind Valencia and, crucially, eight adrift of leaders Barcelona after just 13 games.

As anyone who has ever won a title will tell you, they are particularly hard to defend. Shifts in momentum, coupled with the threat of re-strengthened opponents make back to back league titles a rarity outside all but the most imbalanced of divisions.

FBL-ESP-LIGA-REALMADRID-LASPALMAS

However, Real Madrid have made the 2017/18 season much harder for themselves than they needed to.

While Barcelona fought tooth and nail to plug the gaping Neymar-shaped whole in their side over the summer, Florentino Perez was uncharacteristically thrifty and blasé about key squad departures such as Alvaro Morata, Danilo, Pepe and James Rodriguez – who, combined, played a total of 78 times in La Liga in 2016/17.

The results of this self-inflicted reduction in squad depth have been self evident, particularly in attack. Incredibly, there is not currently a single Real Madrid player in the 20 top scorers in La Liga and ?the club are on course for their worst league goal return since 2007.

However, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema inexplicably continue to fire blanks (prior to this weekend they had the worst goal return rate of any front two in any of Europe’s top five leagues bar Serie A’s bottom side Benevento, according to Marca), one other man might have been worth keeping on the books at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Mariano Díaz Mejía is currently the top scoring Spaniard in any of Europe’s top five leagues, with 11 goals in all competitions for Lyon.

While Morata and James’ transfers were poured over relentlessly, Mariano made the switch to Ligue 1 without much fanfare or indeed much of a transfer fee. In fact, the 24-year-old’s €8m move was comfortably less than the loan fee Bayern Munich paid for James.

However, it is now like the least celebrated of Real Madrid’s outgoing stars this summer who is looking like the most missed in Los Blancos’ pursuit of goals this season.

Mariano was always an unlikely Galactico. He was born in Catalonia for a start, to a Dominican mother and a bodybuilding father. He was released by Espanyol before he was a teenager for being too short.

However, after a growth spurt that would’ve made his dad proud, the young striker impressed enough at Badalona in the Segunda B division to earn a move to Real Madrid’s La Fabrica in 2011.

Real Madrid v Cultural Leonesa - Copa del Rey

After working his way through the ranks at Real’s C and Castilla teams – most notably netting 27 in 32 in the 2015/16 season – he was eventually promoted to Zinedine Zidane’s first team, albeit at the unusually late age of 23.

Amongst the glittering talents, household names and Ballon d’Or contenders, Mariano was always unlikely to be afforded much playing time in his favoured position and remained one of the most peripheral first team figures in Los Blancos’ charge for honours, despite Zidane’s preference to rotate between the league and Europe.

Unlike fellow young upstarts Lucas Vasquez or even Marco Asensio, he is not much of a wide man, a link up man, a number ten, or even a trequartista. Mariano is an old fashioned poacher in the mould of Michael Owen – another man whose career in the Spanish capital failed to ignite despite an appetite for goals.

Deportivo de La Coruna v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

As Lyon assistant Gerald Baticle put it Eurosport (via ?Goal): “When others might want to make a pass, his [Mariano’s] first idea is to find an angle to shoot towards goal. All his play is in the centre towards goal.”

In the Copa del Rey last season, Mariano was afforded his main opportunity to impress, and he did his best to provoke Zidane into using him bigger fixtures, scoring four times in five outings. However, he seemed to leave more of an impression on the watching scouts, with Liverpool among those linked.

It was Lyon who took the gamble on the raw talent last summer, hoping to be the next club to scoop up the never-ending stream of talent seeping through the cracks at the Santiago Bernabeu.

So far, the risk has paid off, and Mariano – who cites Samuel Eto’o another Real Madrid castoff among his footballing idols – has been one of France’s revelations of the season. His ten league strikes are more than that of Mario Balotelli, Kylian Mbappe or indeed Neymar, as Lyon sit in second in Ligue 1.

As a front three Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and Mariano have more goal contributions (goals plus assists) than Paris Saint-Germain’s celebrated front three, with 38 to 36.

Clinical, strong and good in the air, talk has already linked Mariano with a move back to Madrid less than six months after his departure. He himself stoked the rumour fires with an interview with ?El Pais at the start of November in which he claimed he would “never close the door to Madrid.”

However, club president Jean-Michel Aulas has already taken to Twitter to insist there is no ‘buy back’ agreement for the striker, who has a five-year contract at Lyon.

One place Mariano could yet end up next summer is Russia, as he targets a place on the plane with the Spain squad. His solitary Dominican Republic cap in 2013 was a friendly and despite near-constant phone calls from his mother’s nation, he has his heart set on playing for Spain.

“It’s a season before the World Cup, and going there would be magnificent. I’ve not yet spoken to coach Julen Lopetgui but I know I’m being watched,” he told Le Progres.


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