It was only a quarter of an hour into the match but Joselu was already desperate.
Real Madrid were trailing 1-0 to an early Real Sociedad goal, and about ten minutes after the away side’s opener the striker was hurriedly prowling around the opposition penalty area.
Suddenly, Joselu’s brother-in-law and team-mate Dani Carvajal burst into the box, drawing the goalkeeper before cutting back to the middle. Joselu’s shot was spat out by the crossbar. The Madrid crowd sighed. Joselu put his hands to his face; he knew he wouldn’t get many more chances like that.
In the stands, his family were present at the Bernabeu as usual. They threw their hands to their faces, too. “It is clear that he is not a striker like (Karim) Benzema, he is a player with a profile more focused on the area, but he is adapting,” one of Joselu’s relatives admitted quite sincerely to The Athletic.
After the muscle injury Vinicius Junior suffered around three weeks ago, Carlo Ancelotti began to bet on Joselu as Rodrygo’s partner in attack, a decision that was not only logical but also inevitable. “What do you want? He has no other options,” resigned sources around the Italian told The Athletic before the international break.
But instead of looking longingly at Benzema’s locker in the dressing room — there is now a gaudy plasma TV where the Frenchman’s number nine shirt used to hang — Ancelotti saw in his new number 14 something different. Madrid’s manager preserved his new scheme, that 4-4-2 with Jude Bellingham as the link between midfield and attack, but with Rodrygo on the left and Joselu on the right.
And two weeks ago against Getafe, the pieces started to come together. Joselu’s intelligent movement was key to both Madrid’s equaliser and the winner — Bellingham’s late goal to make it 2-1.
During that match, it was clear from how the two interacted on the pitch that Joselu and Bellingham get on well. “I speak a lot with him because I learned English when I played in the Premier League,” Joselu said shortly afterwards in an interview with Diario AS.
😍 COMEBACK AT THE BERNABÉU, part 7453 pic.twitter.com/XNr6VqlcOu
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) September 17, 2023
On Sunday, against a tougher opponent in Real Sociedad, Joselu again got the chance to show what he can do. Another chance to counter his critics.
Being compared to club legend Benzema was always going to make things difficult for Joselu. But despite some fans initially feeling underwhelmed over his arrival, he is an experienced striker (age 33) who was the top Spanish goalscorer in La Liga last season, finding the net 16 times for an Espanyol side that was relegated.
Those in the Bernabeu’s senior offices often emphasise that point. And despite some negativity, the club’s board took it for granted from the beginning of the summer that he would have more importance than might be expected.
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One moment on Sunday night provided the most emphatic evidence yet to back all this up.
With the game tied at 1-1 in the second half, with about half an hour to play, left-back Fran Garcia scurried down the flank and picked out Joselu with a perfectly clipped cross. The striker, six feet and three inches tall, rose in the box and planted a powerful header beyond the Real Sociedad keeper.
He grabbed his shirt in celebration, dropping to his knees in front of the cheering home fans as Bellingham embraced him euphorically. The gesture might have seemed more appropriate for an important Champions League decider, but his reaction did not surprise those who know him, who define him as a very passionate player.
“Seeeluuuuuu, Seeeluuuuuu,” chanted the Santiago Bernabeu, which despite the negativity in some quarters seems to already have embraced him. Straight after his goal, Joselu was replaced from the pitch, along with Aurelien Tchouameni, as midfielders Luka Modric and Eduardo Camavinga came on.
On Sunday, there were times when it seemed Madrid looked for Joselu as a first option to go up the pitch too quickly, which meant he was often forced to risk too much in possession, misplacing six passes of 13. But he still managed to provide his side with breathing space when required. Real Sociedad’s centre-backs Robin le Normand and Igor Zubeldia certainly seemed to have no doubt of Joselu’s threat, marking him especially tightly at set pieces. And they could nothing to stop his goal. He is now Madrid’s second top scorer with two goals this term, behind Bellingham’s five.
The season is still young, but the truth is that, just as has happened in Bellingham’s first weeks, Joselu is also living his particular dream, and it’s helping Madrid lead La Liga with a perfect start of five wins from five.
(Top photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)