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Monday, March 20, 2023

Raphael Varane on why Man United success could mean more than at Real Madrid

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When Raphael Varane rises from his plush pillow in his London hotel room this morning the nerves will begin to kick in. For a player who has won the Champions League four times and the World Cup, the Carabao Cup final might be considered a Sunday stroll. But for United’s ‘soldier’ at the back, the butterflies will still be there. “When it’s special, like a final, you feel different from the moment you wake up in the morning,” he said. “You feel the atmosphere change. But that gives you energy – because it’s natural that when you’re scared you run faster!” Varane has been on fast-forward for a decade now. His first major honour came at 19 when he won La Liga with Real Madrid, and there have been 20 major medals in a decorated career. READ MORE: ‘Only people at the club know’ – Rashford on his stunning comeback at Man United So a Carabao Cup might not take pride of place in his trophy room, but it’s about the journey rather than the destination for the 29-year-old. He left Madrid a serial winner 18 months ago and swapped the guarantee of more medals for the challenge of helping to revive a club that had forgotten what it took to win again and again and again. If United can beat Newcastle at Wembley today it will be their first trophy in six years. It is their first Wembley final in five years and the occasion has a sense of renewal to it. It feels like Erik ten Hag has the club back on track and that this date under the arch is just a stepping stone to even greater glory. The Premier League drought will reach a decade this season and United didn’t qualify for the Champions League last term, but suddenly everything feels possible again and Varane intends to enjoy the journey, having experienced the demands of fighting just to stay at the top during his 10 years at Real. “Honestly, it’s better when you’re going up,” he said. “When you are on the top the only thing that can change is to disappoint. You can’t do anything better because you’re already there. When you can grow with the club and the team, that’s a great feeling. “With Madrid my best memories were when we were climbing and on the journey rather than the arrival.” That 2012 title was significant for Varane and for Real. They had gone four years without winning the league and were in a difficult spell, but once the first trophy was in the bag, a trickle became a flood, including four Champions League wins in five years. Varane credits that first title with changing the belief within that squad, something that feels prophetic for this United team. While the Frenchman is one of several players recruited with an impressive CV recently, they haven’t won together as a group. Today is an opportunity to taste that sensation of collective triumph and if it happens, Varane believes it could be the start of something greater at Old Trafford. “I was speaking with Sergio Ramos about it in Madrid, and when we start winning, we won a lot – but before that it was the same,” he said. “We went years without at Madrid, it was a very long time, and when we won it changed not the mentality, but the belief. When you win you start to think ‘okay, we did it, so now we can do it again.’ “It’s about the winning mentality and when you start to win you just want to win and nothing else. It doesn’t mean that when you aren’t winning you don’t want to. But you do believe more that it is possible and sometimes you need a bit of luck as well. And when you are more confident you bring the luck with you. It’s a positive cycle.” United’s defensive celebrations have been instigated by Varane this season Varane, who praises Ten Hag’s “discipline” and “tactical details” – is talking in a box overlooking the pitch at Old Trafford and although the stadium is empty, he points to the stands when talking about the connection that is developing between players and supporters. That is a relationship that has frayed in recent years and even in August the away end at Brentford were telling the players they weren’t fit to wear the shirt. Last season was one indignity after another, but the transformation in mood this season has been extraordinary, a change engineered by Ten Hag and his desire to improve team spirit, but also helped by the addition of some character and personality into the squad. One of those has become Varane’s partner in central defence. When he’s asked if his relationship with the hot-headed and intense Lisandro Martinez is like fire and ice, he nods along but insists they complement each other well. Martinez’s passion has endeared him to supporters and teammates are beginning to show the same outward emotion. Varane was pumping his fists to all corners of Old Trafford after the derby success against Manchester City in January. There have also been more overt shows of emotion amongst the defenders as well this season, but that is something instigated by Varane rather than Martinez. “I think my first game this season against Liverpool,” he said, “before the game I spoke with my teammates in defence and I said okay, we can celebrate every game, every tackle, every good action and create something and since this first game, we are doing it every game. “So it’s very positive and we can feel the energy and the connection with the fans and we have something special here at Old Trafford, so we have to use it because we can lose three nil but with Old Trafford something can change and we can win every game. Even when we are losing. “We have to feel that confidence and that energy we have to use it.” Varane was trusted by Jose Mourinho because he was a “soldier” That desire to celebrate every defensive contribution would go down well with one of Varane’s former bosses, Jose Mourinho, a coach who also trusted the centre-back as a young defender at Real Madrid. That might go against the grain of the idea that Mourinho doesn’t trust youth, but for Varane it wasn’t about his age, but his ability to go to war. “I think for him the most important thing is not the age, it is the mentality – and (he thinks) ‘if he is a soldier I can put him in’. So it was not the characteristics of how I play, it was the mentality,” he said. Is he still a soldier? “Yes, I am.” His battleground is now Old Trafford rather than the Bernabeu and perhaps it was fate that he would always end up here one day. Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign him from Lens as an 18-year-old and rather than Real trumping United, it was a shift in strategy to sign Chris Smalling instead that put an end to the move. “I was very close to coming here. I think we were agreed, I think Lens and Manchester, but then, I don’t know, I think Manchester change their mind and they sign maybe another player or they have different options,” said Varane, who thought he was heading to Old Trafford in 2010. Real Madrid wasn’t a bad consultation prize, but 13 years on he is finally at United and embracing the journey. Wembley on Sunday could be the first of many stops. READ MORE: Ten Hag loved what Fred did against De Jong Why Antony came on at half-time 8/10s: United player ratings vs Barcelona Ten Hag has as much impact as the players in memorable win vs Barca All the United news and views

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