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Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Sports Thread/UEFA Champions League Final Thread #1 For 5/24/14: Looking For The RightBacking From Del Bosque

First Thread Focus: How JuanFran and Daniel Carvajal Are Playing For More Than Champions League Glory 


With every UEFA Champions League final, much is obviously at stake. But unlike any final in the 22-year old reformation of the European Cup, the ultimate match in Lisbon today has its own unique elements. The whole all-Madrid final, as well as seeing if Atletico could achieve an unfathomable double or if Real can finally end its global community's long (and very annoying for some) obsession for La Decima, gives this campaign's decider an appeal like any of the 21 that preceded it.

However, while the dynamics on club football have received the most attention from this crosstown final, the dynamics of what this contest has on the World Cup, in particular the Spanish national team, will certainly hold equal importance for both sides.

This is the match before Vincente Del Bosque narrows his provisional 30 man list to the final 23 man squad tomorrow morning, and will serve as the last test for players who aren't secure in their places for Brazil.

David Villa's chance at a third World Cup are in a precarious place, but Spain's all time leading scorer will likely have a firm opportunity to make it secure by playing significant minutes for Diego Simeone with David Costa' injury status, even with the stunning placenta return for the Brazilian turned Spaniard. The physical but adept brilliance of young Koke would be a guarantee lock in most national teams after another top class season. Still, a poor outing in the biggest match of his fledging career could sway Del Bosque to make him among his final cruel cuts (although he wisely should not).

But those two players won't be battling against someone on the other side for their final chance to impress. Instead, the most intriguing World Cup last audition in this Champions League final is a fierce duel in Lisbon that could also be determine who will be Del Bosque's first choice rightback come their opener against Holland on June 13. For JuanFran or Daniel Carvajal, this immense game takes on even more importance.

Since Carles Puyol's inevitable decline, Sergio Ramos has been moved (just like with his club outlet) to centerback to partner Gerald Pique. With Alvaro Arbeloa never having a firm lock on that position, the rightback spot for the defending world champions seem to be in a questionable place from what it was four summers ago. Thankfully for Del Bosque, both JuanFran and Carvajal have emerged as eligible candidates for the job, with the toughest last interview coming their way.

It's been quite the transformative journey for Atletico's 29-year old wide right defender. Ironically, Juan Francisco Torres Belen started his career as one of many promising, but failed youth products at Real Madrid, and wasn't even a defender. A skilled winger, JuanFran's early pro career made it seemed he was destined to be another good talent bouncing around mid-table and lower clubs throughout La Liga. However, a career rejuvenating five year stint at Osasuna was just want he needed to lead him to "Madrid's other club."

Still, as a attacking player who didn't score much, JuanFran was never going to wear the colors of La Roja at senior level. Instead, he needed one vital switch to his career, and he received that not under Simeone but from Simeone's predecessor Gregorio Manzano. His move further down the pitch has done him wonders, adding an element of disciplined track backing to go along with his abilities to cause problems to opponents going forward. And now, as Simeone has gotten the maximum level out of him and his fellow defenders (Diego Godin, Miranada, and Felipe Luis), JuanFran has become a true modern day fullback with seven national team caps now to his name.

He has been his terrific form all season with Atletico, especially in the second half to ensure that Madrid's other club would not have the collapse in all competitions that most thought would happen to them. His play in particular against Barcelona ( in containing Andres Iniesta) and then versus Chelsea (in exposing Eden Hazard's questionable trackback skills) placed him for now as one of the best rightbacks in the world. And yet, his place in Brazil is far from a guarantee, especially if he is outperformed by his opposite half Carvajal today.

As this could be the only time ever for JuanFran to be on a World Cup squad, the same can't be said for the 22-year-old man from Leganes staring to become a household name. Like JuanFran, Carvajal was apart of Real's youth system, joint the club at the tender age of 10 and rising up the ranks in an 8-year span. And like JuanFran (and so many other teenage and post adolescent prospects), he found playing time with Los Blancos at senior level hard to come by. But unlike his Atletico adversary, Carvajal was open to going abroad for his first team play instead of being loaned off to a lower La Liga side. He signed a five year contract with Bayer Leverkusen in July 2012 and enjoyed a sterling campaign in the Bundesliga, becoming one of the best fullbacks in the German top flight last year. Only "Earth's best RB" Phillip Lahm and Schalke's Atsuto Uchida were rated to have a better campaign at the spot from Bundesliga observers, and likely for Madrid, a buy in cause to purchase him back was in his contact.

With Arbeloa still around, Carvajal knew he would have to fight to start for Carlo Ancelotti's side in his return to Madrid and was second choice for most of the campaign. However, a season ending knee injury to the 31-year old World Cup and Euro winner in March was the break that Carvajal needed. And since his goal scoring performance against Rayo Vallecano later that month, he has not looked back ever since.

Causing Jurgen Klopp headaches with his forays into Borussia Dortmund's half of the field and shutting down Franc Ribery (albeit an off form injury recovery version of Ribery) exhibited Carvajal's natural two-way feel despite being so young, a mastery of the spot that his Barcelona rival Martin Monoya still is aways from owning after his struggles this season. It's why Del Bosque has named him into his provisional 30 despite not earning a single cap and why one great performance today could earn him a coveted spot.

It's Carvajal's long manufacture development in that position from his childhood days, as well as a seven year age gap, that gives him the major upside advantage over JuanFran. However, experience is still invaluable and JuanFran does have that in spades over the skilled ace standing in his way to Brazil. Plus the desperation in seeing that this maybe is his only shot at playing in FIFA's global competition maybe the added edge that he will play with today.

But both men are also cognizant of the fact that they aren't just battling themselves for that coveted position. Fully aware of Cesar Azpilicueta's versatility and first home at the rightback position, both have to figure that the Chelsea man's spot in the final 23 is not only secure, but that he may have already wrapped up the starting right back position in Del Bosque's head.

It makes their effort today even more important and what's at stake for them larger. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Thibaut Courtois, and Diego Costa know their places in Brazil are guaranteed regardless of how they perform today. For both JuanFran and Daniel Carvajal, this final in Lisbon could be the match that makes or breaks their international football careers.

(More to come on this Champions League final day in Lisbon, in a bit). 
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