Real Madrid teenager Marco Asensio is emerging as one of La Liga's breakout stars on loan at Espanyol, writes Nick Wright…
It has only taken eight La Liga appearances for Marco Asensio to show what the fuss is about. After racing through the youth ranks at Mallorca and earning a £2.5m transfer to Real Madrid last year, the 19-year-old's ascent to stardom is rapidly gathering pace at Espanyol, who he joined on a season-long loan in August.
While Asensio's parent club chase major honours under Rafael Benitez, expectations are rather different at Espanyol, who are aiming to consolidate last year's 10th-placed finish this season. Results have been up and down so far, but their precocious playmaker has shone, adding star quality to a functional side and topping La Liga's assist charts with four.
Assists - La Liga 2015/16
|Gareth Bale||Real Madrid||4|
|Alberto Lora||Sporting Gijón||4|
In Spain, the excitement surrounding Asensio has been building since he broke into Mallorca's first team two years ago. The gifted attacker impressed in challenging circumstances following their relegation to the second tier, and this summer Espanyol were one of a host of clubs battling to borrow him from Madrid. It was the second time in a year that there has been an almighty struggle for his signature.
"There was a fight between Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and many others to get him from Mallorca," Spanish football expert Guillem Balague tells Sky Sports. "He decided to go to Real Madrid, and despite everybody in the first division wanting him in the summer, he decided to go on loan to Espanyol because it's close to his family."
Asensio's move to Madrid was confirmed in December but he stayed at Mallorca for the rest of last season, and the switch to Espanyol came after he inspired Spain's U19s to European Championship glory in Greece. Asensio scored twice in the semi-final against France, and his extraordinary reverse-pass assist saw them past Russia in the final. He was named player of the tournament, and Madrid decided regular top-level football was the next step in his development.
Asensio had never played in La Liga before this season, but he made an immediate impact for Espanyol. On his debut against Real Sociedad he sprang the offside trap and won a penalty in a 3-2 win, and three days later his superb, inswinging free kick from the right flank led to their winning goal at home to Valencia.
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While his assist tally stands at four, Asensio has actually been instrumental in more than half of Espanyol's 12 goals so far. His creativity has been impressive by anyone's standards, and in La Liga only an esteemed trio of Neymar, Nolito and Luka Modric have fashioned scoring chances more regularly. Asensio is level with a certain Lionel Messi on 2.3 chances created per game, which puts him ahead of the likes of Andres Iniesta, Isco and Antoine Griezmann.
Chances created per game - La Liga 2015/16
|Player||Club||Chances created per game|
|Luka Modric||Real Madrid||2.4|
But the statistics only tell part of the story for a player who is equally comfortable as the No 10 or on the flanks. Asensio's pace and dribbling ability make him a formidable weapon on the counter-attack, his vision and range of passing are outstanding, and he has shown the strength of character to cope with increasingly rough treatment from battle-hardened defenders.
A hat-trick of assists in a 3-1 win over Real Betis last month was the highlight of his season so far, but Asensio has shone in adversity, too. He set up Felipe Caicedo's stoppage-time equaliser against Granada last weekend, and it was his driving run and pinpoint cross-field pass which led to Espanyol's goal in Sunday's 2-1 defeat by Athletic Bilbao.
Manager Sergio Gonzalez described him as "magic" before he had even kicked a ball for Espanyol, and he has made an impression on his team-mates, too. "He has it all," says striker Gerard Moreno, who is playing with Asensio for a second time after a loan spell at Mallorca in 2013/14. "He is a spectacular player, and as a person, he's a 10 out of 10."
The boy from Mallorca has already become a key player for Espanyol and graduated to Spain's U21s, so what does the future hold? "There have been rumours that Real Madrid might want him back in January but I can tell you that that's not the case, they want him to stay at Espanyol until the end of the season," says Balague
History shows young players rarely make it as far as Real Madrid's first team, but belief is building that Asensio is different. "He's going to be a superstar," adds Balague. "He's got a fantastic left foot, great work rate, and he can play as a No 10. He could be the star of Real Madrid in two or three years' time. I like him more than Isco. They have both got a lot of quality but in Asensio I see something else. I see more of a goalscorer."
Asensio is still waiting for his first goal in an Espanyol shirt, but it seems like another inevitability on a relentless rise to the top. "It's great that Espanyol can enjoy him," says Balague. "Being an Espanyol fan myself, every time I see him play I shed a tear because it's one less game he will play for us. Maybe we can convince him to stay for an extra year on loan…" Next summer, you sense Real Madrid won't be so receptive to offers.
Watch Asensio in action when Espanyol face Malaga live on Sky Sports 2 HD from 7.25pm on Saturday November 21, or watch without a contract on NOW TV