Fabio Coentrão’s Renaissance

By | May 29, 2014

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Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny

This article first appeared on Soccerly.com

If the report in Portugal’s Record newspaper is to be believed, Fabio Coentrão was left in tears at the close of last summer’s transfer market.

Coentrão’s much anticipated loan move to Manchester United from Real Madrid was dead, with the Spanish giants having allegedly pulled the plug on a deal that was all but done. On duty with his national team, the Portuguese had to be consoled by Portugal teammates, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Nani.

That episode, only a season ago, is a distant memory now that Coentrão has a Champions League medal around his neck, and convincingly ended the season as Real Madrid’s starting left defender.

Although aided by a timely injury to his nearest rival, Coentrão’s renaissance has been both impressive and improbable.

Since arriving in 2011, Coentrão’s tenure in Madrid has been peppered with controversy, starting with the exorbitant fee (30 million Euros) Real Madrid paid in order to secure his services. With fan-favorite, Marcelo, already in the squad, the consensus was that there was little need to spend that sort of money on a player that would more than likely end up sitting on the bench.

Jose Mourinho, who was entering his second year with the club, justified the hefty price tag by claiming that Marcelo had been worked to exhaustion the previous season (playing a total of forty-seven games), and that his performances had been plagued by the inconsistency that results from not having a direct challenger on the team. Still, no matter the justifications, the price tag dictated that Coentrão would have to perform immediately, giving him little room to adjust to a new team in a new country.

Further exacerbating the problem was the fact that Coentrão was a converted defender. For most of his career, the now left-back, was used as an attacking midfielder. His style of play while at Portuguese minnows, Rio Ave, as well as throughout his Portugal youth days, actually drew comparisons to Arjen Robben, and his impressive displays earned him the moniker of “Figo das Caxinas.”

It was only during his second spell with Benfica that Jorge Jesus converted Coentrão. A disciple of the 433, Jesus needed a left-back who could provide attacking width. There was also the small issue of the blossoming Angel Di Maria, who had made the left side of Benfica’s inverted midfield triangle his own.

While Coentrão proved to be an attacking handful at Benfica, his defensive frailties were covered up by the club’s dominance in the Portuguese League. With only FC Porto and Sporting as rival title contenders, defending was perhaps an afterthought.

At Real Madrid, where he was faced with stiffer opposition, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo’s reluctant defending ahead of him, Coentrão’s inadequacies were exposed. His tenacious approach to the game and dogged tackling were never an issue, but his positioning was certainly suspect, prompting Mourinho to angrily correct him on numerous occasions. Ironically, Coentrão’s difficulties were similar to the ones Mourinho was eager to rectify in Marcelo’s game. Understandably, it did not take long for Madridistas to show their discontent.

That discontent was heightened when unsubstantiated reports began to surface about a rift in the dressing room between Real’s Spanish and Portuguese contingents. The belief at the time was that a schism had developed in the Colchonero core. On one side were the Mourinho acolytes, and on the other, the players that felt that his abrasive demeanor and defensive tactics were stains on the royal white jersey. Naturally, club supporters deemed Coentrão one of Mourinho’s followers. Why else would the club have spent so much money on an unpolished Portuguese player?

The perception, whether correct or not, further alienated Coentrão, and his off-field antics did little to endear him to the Bernabeu faithful. After publicly airing his grievances about the way he was being treated by fans, Coentrão was spotted smoking cigarettes on his birthday. The incident drew the ire of Mourinho, who subsequently dropped him from his roster. But that paled in comparison to a home crowd that already unhappy with his perfomraces, jeered the defender and began chanting “smoker” upon his return.

Even though there was some talk that Mourinho had begun to question Coentrão’s professionalism, there was never any indication that the manager was willing to sell his unsettled player. In fact, in one of Mou’s many diatribes against the Spanish media, he stressed that Coentrão would overcome his setbacks and finally live up to his transfer fee. The message was clear, as long as Mourinho remained in town, so would his expensive defender.

Of course, Mourinho’s bags were half packed midway into the 2012-2013 season. His inevitable return to Chelsea spelled the end of the line for Coentrão. No longer insulated by the “Special One,” Coentrão was keen to leave, and when Manchester United showed interest, the marriage between the two appeared to be a done deal.

The exact reasons for the deal’s collapse are still not clear, and they seem destined to remain that way. Nevertheless, Carlo Ancelotti maintained that he never wanted Coentrão to leave, and insisted that all parties were happy the deal never materialized.

The sincerity of Ancelotti’s comments was questionable, especially given Coentrão’s lack of playing time, but a hamstring injury to Marcelo – whose defensive displays had begun to slip – in early April, opened the door for the Portuguese in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, against Borussia Dortmund.

Like his club, Coentrão put in a fine performance against the team that so unceremoniously crushed Los Blancos in the semifinals of the same competition the previous year. However, it was against Bayern Munich that Coentrão truly shone, and arguably worked himself into the good graces of both Ancelotti and the afición. Coentrão had already played well against Barcelona in the Copa d’el Rey final only a week earlier, assisting Gareth Bale’s game-winning goal, after deftly squeezing in between Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez.

Versus Bayern at the Bernabeu, Coentrão not only set-up Benzema for the only goal of the game after making a lung-busting run up the left side, but also neutralized Arjen Robben, who had been virtually unstoppable during the Champions League campaign. By the time Real Madrid played the return leg in Munich, Coentrão was showing the sort of confidence that had attracted Europe’s biggest clubs while he was still at Benfica. Robben was once again cancelled out, as Coentrão’s speed helped propel Real Madrid’s counterattacking masterpiece.

Coentrão’s rejuvenation could easily be chalked up to an opportunity that was seized upon, but that would only be partly true. The Portuguese international’s most recent reincarnation exhibits a maturity that usually develops when a player has successfully navigated a turbulent period. Whatever the reason, Coentrão has managed to survive the kind of Madridista pressure that has flattened other players, and that can only bode well for Portugal in the World Cup.

If Portugal is to survive its group, Paulo Bento is going to need players that have gone through the wringer. Cristiano Ronaldo can shoulder most of the country’s burden, but he will only be able to do so if other players are able to handle the pressure of the world’s most watched sporting event.

Ronaldo was Coentrão’s pillar of support in September. Now it’s his club and country teammate that must support the Ballon d’Or winner.