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Toni Kroos: Real Madrid's unsung hero

Some will put Real Madrid's 2016/17 title triumph down to Zinedine Zidane. Some will say Cristiano Ronaldo's astonishing form down the stretch saw the capital club over the line. Others will claim Isco to be the driving force behind Real's championship win. All three figures deserve significant credit, but few will talk about the contribution of Toni Kroos to everything.
He is the quiet man behind all that Real Madrid have achieved this season. There's a quality to the German that means he is sometimes overlooked. There is no over-elaboration to his play, everything is done in a measured manner. There is a purpose to his play. Without it Real Madrid wouldn't be the team they currently are.
Not so long ago speculation swirled over Kroos' future at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, with a number of Premier League clubs reported to be interested in the 27-year-old. Now, however, it seems unlikely that he will be going anywhere this summer, such has been his form over the latter part of the 2016/17 season in particular.
Only Luis Suarez (13) tallied more assists in La Liga this season than Kroos (12), with the German only bettered by Neymar (three) in the key passes per game column (Kroos averages 2.8) and Steven N'Zonzi (79.8) in the overall passes per game column (Kroos averages 71.4).
His midfield partner Luka Modric might be the one that sets the tempo and intensity of Real Madrid's play, but it's Kroos who is charged with picking the lock of the opposition defence. Languid at times, un-energetic even, and with the innocent look of a schoolboy, Kroos can make an easy target, but his passing is why he should be counted among the very best.
That is something he has always excelled at, going back to his Bayern Munich days, but Kroos has evolved and changed as a player over the course of the current campaign. While Modric has made a good partner for Kroos in the centre of the Real Madrid midfield, it is in fact Isco who the German seems to have struck up the most natural of understandings with. The playmaker's confidence in possession has liberated Kroos, allowing him to push higher up the pitch, where he can have a greater influence on proceedings in the final third.
And so Kroos has never before been so important to Real Madrid. Without him Zidane wouldn't be able to control matches in the way that has become his hallmark as a pragmatist and a coach. Without Kroos Real Madrid would have to expend significantly more energy in the middle of the pitch to achieve the same effect, casting doubt on whether they'd be able to last the course as they have done this season. Zidane's side have actually improved towards the end of the campaign, something that wouldn't have been possible without Kroos.
Of course, his potency from set pieces should also be factored in to any assessment of his importance to Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos is particularly grateful to Kroos for his ability to drop a delivery right on his forehead, with the centre-back enjoying his best ever goalscoring season. Much of that is down to the German.
This is perhaps the greatest mark of Kroos' quality - he makes others better. His involvement is to the benefit of those around him, with the exception of Gareth Bale. The form of Kroos has only underlined the benefit of having Isco in the lineup, but the knock-on effect of that might hit Gareth Bale rather hard. The Welsh winger is no longer assured of a place in the team when he returns from injury, and while most will rightly put that down to Isco, Kroos is a part of the equation.
That is not the concern of Zidane, though. He is only charged with getting the best from his team and Kroos helps him do that arguably more than any other player. So while the German is unlikely to win any individual awards or make the front page of many newspapers, Real Madrid's success this season is moulded in his image.

Van der Sar: Ajax youngsters will not freeze on the big stage

Ajax Amsterdam's youthful squad will not be overawed by the occasion when they face Manchester United in the Europa League final on Wednesday, former Ajax and United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has said.
Despite an average age of 22, the Dutch side led by manager Peter Bosz have displayed no sign of nerves in beating Schalke 04 and Olympique Lyonnais to reach their first European final since 1996.
"They have played the same system. They have the same philosophy and they know what to do when the game starts," Van der Sar told the Times.
"Sometimes you know what they can do but in other clubs they don't get the opportunity to show it. At Ajax, you get the opportunity.
"You saw it in the games against Schalke (in the quarter-final) and Lyon (in the semi-final). I never saw in those games that these boys could not play in the final."
Ajax have often had to sell their best players to richer rivals in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
And while 19-year-old striker Kasper Dolberg and captain Davy Klaassen have already linked with moves at the end of the season, Van der Sar said academy prospects were already groomed to replace any outgoing players.
"At a certain point, at 24-25, they are ready to take the next step to a different club and we know that. That is not a problem," he added.
"If our academy works well, then his follow-up is there already and pushing him out of the club because he wants to take his place.
"We will maybe lose one player in the summer but I think this team is going to stick around for a few years."

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