While most of the attention at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium this season has, as usual, been focused on the galaxy of superstars at Real Madrid CF's disposal, the 25-year-old Argentinian international Santiago Solari has been quietly stating his case for automatic inclusion in Vicente del Bosque's starting lineup.
Solution to the 'problem' position
Now in his second season with the Spanish champions after moving across the city when Club Atlético de Madrid were relegated, he opened the scoring in three consecutive UEFA Champions League second group stage games after the winter break and, in doing so, consolidated his claim to Madrid's "problem" position on the left side of midfield.
The Little Indian
Known as "El Indiecito" (the Little Indian, a reference to his uncle Jorge Solari, the former CD Tenerife coach who played for Argentina in the 1966 FIFA World Cup), he moved to Spain after being recommended by former Madrid star Fernando Redondo, who is married to Solari's cousin and who, along with Enzo Francescoli, Solari rates as his own personal footballing idols.
Solari, whose refreshing modesty is matched by the kind of looks that have already made him a pin-up in his own country, struggled for fitness last season owing to respiratory problems that eventually required an operation. But this season he has been firing on all cylinders, particularly in the Champions League.
"I've been lucky"
"I’ve been lucky in the Champions League," he told uefa.com. "I’ve scored more goals in the Champions League than in the Spanish league, but it's just luck. It's a tournament that everybody likes because it's a beautiful tournament, but I would like to score a lot more in the league as well."
To do that he knows he has to nail down a first team place, and fight off some strong competition. "It's really difficult because of the level of the players at this club," he said. "There are 26 players here and everyone knows they could all play in the first team.
"It's most difficult in midfield and in the forwards because you all know we have Raúl [González] and [Zinedine] Zidane, [Luis] Figo and [Fernando] Morientes and they are fantastic players so it's very difficult to find an opening. I've been patient – you have to be patient, even if you know you can do it. You have to realise where you are and that maybe it's going to take a while. But I'm now enjoying this moment."
Partnership with Roberto Carlos
And at this very moment Solari's attention is focused on the Champions League once more. He still faces an anxious wait to learn whether the return of Luis Figo will mean he is relegated to the bench against FC Bayern München tonight, although there are signs that Del Bosque is beginning to like the look of his partnership with Roberto Carlos on the left-hand side.
Confident of progressing
But whether he plays or not, Solari is confident of making further progress. "Of course I think we'll win," he said. "I wouldn't play if I didn't think so! There was a really, really big game that we lost – the final of the Copa del Rey, and from now on we have five games remaining in the league, and hopefully we'll get through in the Champions League. But all of them are very important games."
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