By Joe Bernstein for The Mail on Sunday
22:31 February 25, 2023, updated 23:35 February 25, 2023
- Raphael Varane is convinced that a first trophy for his team will lead to more
- The defender prepares to play the final of the Carabao Cup against Newcastle
- As Varane also revealed, he came close to joining the Red Devils as a teenager.
Raphael Varane has a good way of acknowledging his success without crossing the line into arrogance. When asked how long it took him to recover from the heartbreak of losing a World Cup final in December, he pauses briefly before delivering a devastating blow.
‘Well,’ he says. ‘It’s easier to handle when you’ve already won one. Easier.’
There’s a twinkle in the 29-year-old’s eye and he needn’t be ashamed to bask in his achievements.
Manchester United signed him from Real Madrid precisely because he is a serial winner and Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Newcastle is a milestone in Erik ten Hag’s project to restore Sir Alex Ferguson’s glory years.
While victory would give United their first trophy since 2017, Varane has won 11 in that time, including the World Cup, Nations League and a pair of Champions League and La Liga titles each.
The way he celebrated with fellow midfielder Lisandro Martinez after beating Barcelona on Thursday suggests the appetite for more prizes is far from sated and Varane is happy to use his knowledge to calm the nerves of the younger players in the dressing room. Wembley.
He is also convinced that a first trophy on the board for the new Ten Hag team will lead to more.
“Experience helps in many ways,” says the Frenchman. ‘Before the game, it can make everyone feel more calm and confident. It also helps in the game itself, when to press, when to hold your position.
‘That first trophy is very important. I remember speaking to Sergio Ramos about it in Madrid. When we started (La Liga 2012), we won a lot.
Madrid had not won for a few years and the first one changed, not in mentality but in belief. We started thinking ‘Okay, we did it, so now we can do it again.’
‘You believe that it is possible to do more and when you have confidence you bring luck with you. It is a positive cycle. Curiously, Varane says that winning his first medals at Real Madrid excited him more than the years of domination that followed.
‘It’s better when you’re going up. When you’re at the top, you can’t do any better. Growing up with this club’s team is a great feeling, ”he says. ‘My best memories with Madrid were climbing and being on the trip.’
There’s a sense of excitement at Old Trafford right now. Not only among the younger generation represented by Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho, but also among the veterans: Varane, Casemiro, David de Gea.
Varane rarely seems nervous. His association with Martinez seems like a combination of fire and ice, and he says it is exactly like that.
Beneath the surface, Varane is hoping for some butterflies. He welcomes you.
“Of course I feel it in a big game,” he says. ‘You have to control it and in any case, when you are afraid you run faster! Personally, I need some tension. I don’t play well without pressure.
‘I’m going to try to lead by example. If a young player sees an experienced player acting cool, talking to him is helpful. If they see you’re nervous and don’t communicate, it’s not a good thing.’
Varane’s first season at United was unremarkable. The club was in crisis under different managers and injuries disrupted his rhythm.
The arrival of Ten Hag has changed everything. Newcomers Casemiro, Martínez, Antony and Christian Eriksen have raised the bar. Longest-serving players De Gea, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes and particularly Rashford have found a new lease on life.
Big decisions have been made with the farewell of Cristiano Ronaldo and the loss of club captain Harry Maguire. The results have seen United still struggling to win four different competitions. They are unbeaten in nine and are showing no signs of fatigue even though this is their eighth game in 27 days.
Varane has completely bought it. Nine days after his grueling World Cup concluded, he returned to United’s shirt against Nottingham Forest after illness forced others to withdraw.
He and Martínez not only complement each other as a couple, but they have encouraged the rest of the squad to enjoy both defending and scoring a goal.
“Before my first start of the season against Liverpool, I spoke to my teammates and told them that we can celebrate every tackle and create something,” he says.
‘Since then we have done it in every game. It is very positive and we can feel the energy and the connection with the fans. The first goal now is this final, but then, yes, we want to see United at the top and play in the Champions League every year.
‘For young players, it’s all about the mentality, keeping the same approach. It’s not about being 20 years old and thinking that there’s nothing more to learn.’
The irony is that Varane could have spent most of his career at United and not the Bernabéu. The club were ready to sign him when he was a teenager from Lens, but at the last minute he turned his attention to Chris Smalling.
“I was very close to coming here,” he says. I think we agreed, Lens and Manchester, but then, I don’t know, I think Manchester changed their minds. Another opportunity would come and the Bernabéu was not bad at all!
“I have spoken to Sir Alex Ferguson since I got here, but not about what happened then, it’s a long story and I didn’t want to say anything negative. I have too much respect for him.
He may have missed out on working with Fergie, but Varane has had some top managers in any case.
His first trophies in Spain came with José Mourinho, who, ironically, is also the last United manager to lift trophies.
The Special One usually trusts veteran players over up-and-coming talent, but Varane was so good at 19 that he had to be picked. “The most important thing for Mourinho is the mentality. If he thinks you’re a soldier, he’ll lock you up. And I’m still a soldier. Yes, I am!’ he says.
But with Ten Hag behind the wheel, Varane is certain United have the best custodian in the manager’s chair.
While most neutrals may be rooting for Newcastle to end their 54-year wait for a trophy, it will be just as significant if Manchester United end their own six-year wait and show that Britain’s biggest football club is ready to win again.
“The manager has brought a new direction for everyone,” says Varane. We know exactly where he wants to go.