Why Real Madrid and Mateo Kovacic face big decisions
In August 2015, Real Madrid made a surprise move to sign Inter Milan midfielder Mateo Kovacic for £25 million.
There wasn't much fanfare surrounding Kovacic's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu, despite many other European sides monitoring his progress in Italy. The Croatia international had thrived at Inter. He became a key player, racking up 97 appearances for the Nerazzurri, all before turning 21.
Kovacic turns 24 on Sunday. Despite achieving success at Madrid, he will be disappointed with his lack of playing time. He's made 18 La Liga appearances and six more in the Champions League this season. Combined, however, it amounts to just over 1,050 first-team minutes.
Kovacic is behind Casemiro in Zinedine Zidane's pecking order. The Brazil international, suffering suspension and injury, has still amassed almost three times as many minutes as the Croatian this campaign.
Kovacic's ability is not the issue. A lack of regular action is the concern. With teams including Manchester United, Liverpool and Juventus all interested, the Madrid midfielder has a big decision to make. His future development depends on it.
Billed as Lo Blancos' natural successor to Modric, Kovacic is entitled to feel disgruntled. Even more so considering the rise of Marco Asensio, a youngster given ample opportunity to shine at Madrid. For a team such as the reigning European champions, however, some stars must except secondary roles.
Zidane's preference for the 4-3-3 formation means that the more defensive-minded Casemiro is established as a mainstay. Alongside the 26-year-old, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos continue to excel.
Modric's future at Real is uncertain, too. In recent months, there's speculation surrounding a possible return to England's top-flight. Maybe Luka has unfinished business at Tottenham Hotspur?
Although Kroos is only two years shy of 30, his playing style means he continues to improve as time passes. The German is Madrid's metronome. With that in mind, it's hard to see where Kovacic fits. There's also Isco, who has proven he can excel in a deeper role.
What next for Kovacic?
Mateo has to ponder carefully over the coming months. He has a difficult decision. There are potential pitfalls attached to both remaining at the Bernabeu and choosing to depart.
With Real's constant quest for success, improving the squad is of paramount importance. New signings are inevitable in the summer. Particularly as it's a World Cup year. James Rodriguez's big-money switch from Monaco was unexpected prior to his excellent 2014 tournament with Colombia.
If Kovacic played for any other side, he would probably be searching for a fresh start already. He deserves better. It's difficult to prove his talent at Madrid, though, with opportunities scarce, expectations high and the pressure relentless.
Kovacic sustained a knee injury, sidelining him in this campaign's early months. He's only had a run of consistent league starts once since, impressing against tough Champions League opposition in February.
As a true box-to-box midfielder, Kovacic can be tough to stop. He has a variety of attributes to benefit his teammates. His passing range, dribbling, ball control and tackling ability are all excellent.
It's evident Kovacic is more comfortable playing in advanced positions, with less defensive responsibility. Casemiro's ability as a protector enables Madrid to focus on creating chances, an area in which the Croat thrives.
Kovacic is no longer Real's new toy. His presence may have been taken for granted as the Spanish giants are yet to offer him a contract extension. A reported €50m release clause will no doubt attract other clubs.
Many European teams, although a step-down in quality, could offer Kovavic first-team assurances. Most sides would look to build around him in midfield.
Kovacic has lifted eight trophies at Madrid, including the Champions League twice and La Liga. Perhaps it's time to leave Spain and flourish abroad.