Why Mariano Diaz can become Real Madrid's new goal machine
Real Madrid made a rather unexpected move this summer when activating the £30-million release clause to bring Mariano Diaz back to the Santiago Bernabeu. The 25-year-old was sold to Ligue 1 side Lyon 15 months ago as there was no space in an attack featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. The exit of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner left a huge gap, though, which many expected would be filled by another marquee signing. Los Blancos had other ideas. They opted for their youth product.
Diaz carved out his own opportunity with top-notch performances in France. The Spanish-born striker scored 21 goals for Lyon last season, in which 18 came from 34 league matches. Such a return hasn't been bettered by Madrid's number nine, Benzema, since 2015/16. The French forward struck a meagre 12 times in total last campaign.
Benzema's poor form left Ronaldo with most of the work. The Portuguese captain didn't disappoint. For three consecutive seasons, his goals proved instrumental to Real's success, particularly in Europe. Meanwhile, Bale was often injured.
Diaz had already demonstrated his capability, despite not receiving enough minutes to make an impact. Having scored 32 goals in 44 appearances for Real Madrid Castilla between 2013-16, he was promoted to the first team. Under Zinedine Zidane, the attacker was called on only eight times in La Liga, mostly as a late substitute to help close out games. He still managed the scoresheet. In the Champions League, his total was just five minutes.
Diaz was soon sold to Lyon. With regular playing time, he was back among the goals. Together with Memphis Depay, his impressive form helped fire Les Gones to a Champions League place.
By this time people were taking notice. While still manager of Spain in December 2017, Julen Lopetegui stated he was monitoring Diaz for a call-up.
When the opportunity arose to sign Diaz, it wasn't a difficult choice for Lopetegui. Madrid's new coach was a keen admirer.
Diaz was handed the number seven jersey, previously belonging to legends such as Raul and recently vacated by Ronaldo, arguably the club's greatest ever player. The shirt's newest owner made his second debut as a substitute against Roma in the Champions League. He soon curled in a superb strike from outside the penalty box which was reminiscent of his predecessor.
For some, Diaz's goal may seem out of the blue. But the revelation that it came from a proven goalscorer, one who has been consistent over time, makes it easy to understand. His performance has made another thing clear: given the chance to play regularly, he will deliver the goods.
Diaz may struggle to consistently score 40 or more goals every season like Ronaldo. However, the Spaniard can be Real Madrid's new talisman. He'll score enough to keep Los Blancos challenging for trophies, both domestically and abroad.