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Jude Bellingham: Real Madrid midfielder faces former club Borussia Dortmund

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Saturday’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund holds extra significance for Jude Bellingham. His current side against his former one. And on home soil too. But don’t expect the magnitude of the occasion to get to him.

It is more likely to make him better. This is a player who, at 20, has scored stoppage-time winners home and away against Barcelona in his first season at Real Madrid. His appetite for the biggest games has been the defining feature of a stunning, 23-goal campaign.

Any doubts about how he might adapt under the glare of the spotlight at Real Madrid, with all the pressure the shirt brings, were immediately dispelled following his £115m arrival.

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Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel is unfazed about playing former team-mate Jude Bellingham and Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

His first three appearances, all away from home, brought four goals. On his debut at the Bernabeu, against Getafe in September, he scored a 95th-minute winner. “It’s crazy, I have run out of words,” said team-mate David Alaba. And that was only four games in.

Bellingham continued to deliver. There was a 94th-minute winner on his Champions League bow for the club, against Union Berlin. Goals against Girona, Napoli, Osasuna and Braga followed.

Then, in October, an almost implausible high as he struck twice, the first a 30-yard stunner, the second yet another stoppage-time winner to seal a comeback victory against Barcelona in El Clasico. Ludicrously, he repeated the feat when they met again in April.

“Our fans got used to Cristiano Ronaldo, now they have Jude,” said Vinicius Junior. “Bellingham was born to play for Real Madrid.”

Records were sent tumbling in those earlier months.

His total of 14 goals in his first 15 games was the highest in the club’s history, more than even Ronaldo and Alfredo Di Stefano managed. And while his scoring rate has slowed since Christmas, the dip can be forgiven given the ridiculous heights he was previously hitting.

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Jude Bellingham, wearing Zinedine Zidane’s iconic No 5 shirt at Real Madrid, explains why the Frenchman was the benchmark for him growing up

“He is new to La Liga, new to Real Madrid, and there is a lot of pressure when you are in that position,” says Fernando Morientes. And he should know. The former striker, a three-time Champions League winner with Madrid, scored 100 goals in 272 appearances for the club after joining them from Real Zaragoza in 1997.

“His first half of the season was amazing,” he adds of Bellingham. “He has had some ups and downs, which is normal for any young player, but I think his adaptation has been extraordinary.

“The hardest thing for a player in a new league, with a new culture and new language, is adapting but his adaptation has been fantastic. That is something all clubs want in their players.”

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Speaking ahead of the Champions League final, Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham was asked about teammate Vinicius Junior winning the Ballon D’or and the prospect of Kylian Mbappe joining the club.

The need was particularly acute at Madrid given the circumstances. Bellingham was signed as part of their midfield succession plan but there was also the small matter of replacing Karim Benzema’s goals following his departure to Saudi Arabia. Kylian Mbappe did not arrive. Nor did Harry Kane.

Bellingham had to step up, thrust into an advanced midfield role somewhere between a false nine and a No 10. A comparison between his heat maps from the last two seasons highlights the extent of the positional change. It was new to him. It didn’t show.

Jude Bellingham Has Switched Sides And Moved Further Forward
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Jude Bellingham has switched sides and moved further forward

“This year Real Madrid haven’t played with a natural striker,” adds Morientes. “This has meant a player coming from the second line has had to take on more responsibility for joining the forward line and getting through to the penalty area to score goals.

“Bellingham has shown an amazing ability to do that and define different plays. If we had asked ourselves at the beginning of the season whether he would be Real Madrid’s top scorer, few people would have thought so. They would have thought Rodryo, Vinicius or Joselu, the attackers.

“But he has added different facets to his abilities as a player and that is amazing at his age. He is not just a good midfielder who can create opportunities. He has added more to his game. As a young player, if you are able to absorb new skills like that, the team ultimately benefits.”

That has certainly been the case for Real Madrid. Bellingham had demonstrated his scoring potential at Dortmund but this season has been something else. He surpassed his total of 14 goals last season in the space of only a few months.

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Jude Bellingham’s attacking threat has been transformed

His shot numbers are roughly consistent with last season but what is key is that the quality of those shots has increased considerably, his expected goals per 90 minutes nearly doubling, from 0.25 to 0.43. Madrid have been rewarded for putting him in better positions. Bellingham is getting nearly 50 per cent more touches in the opposition box than he was last term.

Carlo Ancelotti has marvelled at his maturity. “It feels like he is 30, for his character, his personality.” But Bellingham has been eager to recognise the Real Madrid manager’s role in his success. “All the credit goes to Ancelotti, who found the right position for me and gave me more freedom on the pitch, so now I’m flying,” he said after claiming the Golden Boy award in December.

It is thanks to Bellingham, though, that Ancelotti’s tactical adjustment has actually worked. Physically, he has found another level, his stamina and running power allowing him to shuttle between midfield and attack without leaving the team exposed.

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Jude Bellingham talks up Wayne Rooney’s influence after claiming the prestigious Golden Boy award earlier this season

“I think one of the aptitudes or characteristics of Jude Bellingham has been his physique,” says Morientes, who is now working as an ambassador for La Liga. “You need to have a powerful physique as a midfielder as you are often required to run the most in games.”

It is important to note that Bellingham’s role is not just an offensive one. He is asked to contribute defensively too, even slotting into a left midfield role in Champions League knockout games in which Madrid have been required to sit back and absorb pressure.

It is of course in the final third, though, that he has done his best work.

Only Villarreal’s Alexander Sorloth has scored more open-play goals in La Liga. Bellingham has also registered six assists. He has excelled at getting on the end of chances but he has created plenty too. Only two players have made more through-balls. He ranks third for possession won in the final third, a ball-winner as well as ball-player.

Jude Bellingham Has A Combined Total Of 25 Goals And Assists In La Liga
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Jude Bellingham has a combined total of 25 goals and assists in La Liga

Real Madrid will hope to see the full breadth of his offering once again as they seek to add another Champions League triumph to the domestic title they have already secured at Wembley. What happens beyond that will be intriguing too.

The club are expected to finally complete the signing of Mbappe this summer, the Frenchman’s likely instalment up front, coupled with the imminent retirement of Toni Kroos, ensuring Bellingham’s role will be impacted again, another adjustment to come.

But his importance to the side will doubtless remain. Bellingham represents the club’s present and future. Back on home soil on Saturday, an extraordinary debut season could yet get better.

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