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Raphael Varane: From unknown to Real Madrid contender for Manchester United clash

The 19-year-old is so good, Jose Mourinho may pick him ahead of Pepe to tackle Manchester United duo Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney

Sir Alex Ferguson knows all about Raphaël Varane, the teenage defender who could be the surprise in Jose Mourinho's team selection tomorrow night. He starred in the same France Under-19 team as Paul Pogba and could have joined him at Old Trafford had United not signed Phil Jones. Varane also had his head turned by Zinedine Zidane, who likens him to his World Cup-winning team-mate Laurent Blanc, and ensured his future was at Real Madrid.

Ferguson will get another look at Varane in the Bernabeu if Mourinho decides to put him up against Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie despite the return to fitness of the vastly experienced Pepe.

At first glance it looks like an easy decision for the manager: the veteran international, lynchpin of last season's league-winning defence and so often the standard-bearer of Mourinho's aggressively competitive team, or the 19-year-old kid.

The fact that Varane has played only 13 games for Madrid this season would count against him had one of those not come against Barcelona in the first leg of the Spanish Cup semi-final two weeks ago. The youngster born in Lille was man of the match, dominating a forward line made up of Lionel Messi and three World Cup and European Championship winning Spain internationals Pedro, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.

Mourinho had already told Real Madrid's supporters: "In Varane you have a top central defender for the next 10 years." The performance against Barcelona suggested that the golden decade is ready to begin.

Eyebrows were raised when Madrid paid €10m for a 17-year-old who had played just 23 games for Lens in what had been a relegation season. The recommendation carried more weight having come from Zidane but appeared to be an expensive gamble all the same. It was also a decision that would stunt the progress of Madrid's homegrown defenders, not that Varane was coming to take their place in the club's youth team.

Immediately registered as a first-team squad member, he was a calming influence on Real's defence. The only time Varane seems to have been ruffled was when he received that first phone call from Zidane telling him of Real's interest. "Can you get back to me?" he asked France's most famous footballer. As he put the phone down he questioned the wisdom of asking his hero to call back, but studying for exams he had been too sensible to jump at what was the chance of a lifetime.

Zidane did call again and a better prepared Varane had no hesitation in accepting the offer of moving to Madrid. He played four times in the Champions League last season as well as nine times in the league. This season there has been even more first-team involvement and that Clasico semi-final was a coming-of-age game.

With a goalline clearance, a goal-saving tackle on Fabregas and the towering header from Mesut Özil's corner that brought Real back into the tie, Varane gave a performance that made Pepe's absence from such an important game irrelevant.

The tackles, heroic clearances, and the goal-scoring header were straight from Pepe's repertoire but the teenager also brings a calm consistency that Pepe's critics argue he lacks. For every five or six interventions there's always at least one rush of blood to the head. Varane appears to have – as the Spanish say – ice in the veins. Will that coolness sway Mourinho's team selection?

He could yet play them both with Varane alongside Pepe and Sergio Ramos moving to right-back, with Alvaro Arbeloa switching to left-back in place of Fabio Coentrao.

That would be to pick arguably his four most competent defenders but it would also be to antagonise Ramos, the team's captain, who now feels he belongs at the heart of Real's defence, not charging up and down the touchline.

Mourinho has not worried about upsetting Ramos in the past nor has he looked for the president's approval. Though should he pick the youngster Varane tomorrow, Florentino Perez will be more than happy. After his Clasico performance in the Cup, Perez went down to the Real Madrid dressing room and personally congratulated the 19-year-old.

No one is more delighted at the progress of the young defender who might easily have ended up at a rival such as Manchester United, but instead could be the man shutting them out at the Bernabeu tomorrow night.

Mourinho received some good news yesterday as he pondered his team selection. Real's home league game against Barcelona – which comes just before their second leg against Manchester United – will be played on Saturday at 4pm. He had wanted the game moved to a Friday night but Barça refused the request. The afternoon kick-off represents a small victory – the game would have been played at 10pm Spanish time to maximise the domestic television audience.