Last season he was playing in front of crowds of 2,000 at Huesca and Numancia and getting sent-off in a 4-2 home defeat against Sporting Gijon. This season he's laid down foundations for a shot at the Ballon d'Or and is on the verge of a call-up to the Spanish national squad. The rise of Real Madrid's newest star Jese Rodriguez Ruiz, or Jese, has been rapid.
Just over a year ago, the Las Palmas-born attacker scored the opener in Real Madrid Castilla's 2-1 victory over Almeria in the Segunda Division. It was his 13th goal of the season for Alberto Toril's side and he went on to bag 22 for the season in 38 appearances, beating club legend Emilio Butragueno's record of 21 in the 1983-84 season for Madrid's second team. The signs and statistics were encouraging and the 20-year-old has so-far lived up to the hype. He's not only set to start for Madrid at the Bernabeu against Villarreal in the Primera Division this weekend, but he's expected to lead Los Blancos' front line in the absence of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo.
The other scorer for Castilla in that victory over Almeria? A certain Alvaro Morata, a player expected to be Madrid's next big thing, but one who has fallen down the pecking order and into the shadows of his former Castilla teammate. Morata was set to be the next "local hero" from Madrid's production line, his name already sung by the club's Ultras Sur before making any kind of real impact, but attentions have turned to the man from the Canary Islands.
The roar of appreciation that greeted Jese's departure from Wednesday night's Copa del Rey crushing of neighbours Atletico said it all; it was almost as loud as the goals in Los Blancos' 3-0 victory. The youngster scored his side's second, a neat finish underneath Thibaut Courtois from a brilliant Angel di Maria pass that gave Carlo Ancelotti's men control of the semi-final tie. He was a constant thorn in the side of Los Colchoneros, switching flanks with Ronaldo throughout and causing visiting full-backs Juanfran and Emiliano Insua problems in equal measure.
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It wasn't a one-off, but it was arguably his most complete performance to date in coming in a high-pressure match. Not just a cup semi-final, but a cup semi-final derby match against neighbours that upset the city hierarchy just days before by moving top of La Liga for the first time since 1996. With back-to-back derby wins to their name, both at the Bernabeu, and a place at the top of La Liga, Diego Simeone's men had the unusual tag of pre-tie favourites. Madrid had a point to prove and they proved it alright and their performance was epitomised by Jese.
Yet he may well have been subject to a spot on the bench had record signing Gareth Bale been passed fit before the match. Ancelotti said in the build-up that the Welshman was available to play and he was expected to take the place of Jese, but Ronaldo's three-match suspension, which starts this weekend, meant Madrid did not take any risks with the former Tottenham Hotspur man, recovering from a groin injury, ahead of the weekend.
Therein lies the problem: The Spanish under-21 international is one of Madrid's form players alongside Luka Modric, but club politics, alongside Ancelotti's preference for 4-3-3, mean Los Blancos' three-pronged attack will be led by Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Bale when all three are fit. Club president Florentino Perez will not want his big-money signings sitting on the bench.
"Bale is going to come back and show what a great player he is and why Real signed him," Jese said recently. "He is first choice and I am going to have to work my guts out to play." Work his guts out he has. The former Castilla man showed encouraging signs in the early part of the season, scoring on the big stage of the Camp Nou, albeit in a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona. But it was his winning goal against Valencia at the Mestalla just before the winter break that lit the touch paper.
When Madrid kicked-off 2014 against Celta Vigo at the Bernabeu, Jese didn't get on the scoresheet but his introduction from the bench just after the hour mark helped turn the game. He set-up Benzema for the opener and Madrid went on to win 3-0 when the scoreline could have so easily been different. He featured prominently for Madrid in the matches that followed through a perfect January for the club and he was eventually, and deservedly, rewarded with a first league start in Bilbao at the weekend. Aptly, he scored Madrid's goal in a 1-1 draw at the new San Mames.
He has the raw ability of a player so young, but also plays with an old head on his young shoulders. He has the pace to beat his man and the anticipation and class to finish a move off, as demonstrated against Bilbao and Atleti. He has a confidence that is required to survive at Madrid, too. "I've dreamed of winning the Ballon d'Or in four years," he told El Larguero -- quite a statement from someone so young and so inexperienced, but an exciting statement, nevertheless. Aim high, and all that.
His form has also caught the attention of Spanish national coach Vicente Del Bosque, who attended the Madrid derby on Wednesday night to catch Jese's performance in the flesh. International regulars such as Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Juanfran were among those on the pitch, but it was Jese who stood out above the rest.
"All of the players who we have been looking at and who have been playing well are potential candidates for the national team," said Del Bosque, the former Castilla and Madrid manager. "I don't like to single out any one player in particular or mention any names but in general, a number of players have the possibility of being called up and Jese is among them." It may be a long shot for inclusion in Spain's World Cup squad this summer, but inclusion for this month's friendly against Italy at the Vicente Calderon is a possibility.
He has already represented his country at all levels from under-16 to under-21, excelling at each stage. He finished top-scorer in the 2012 U19 European Championships in Estonia with four goals, three of them coming in Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal. A year later he scored five goals in the FIFA U20 World Cup in Turkey, receiving the Bronze Shoe for being the third-best scorer in the tournament.
The talented youngster can expect a flurry of starts in the coming weeks given Ronaldo's three-match ban, which starts this weekend, and he needs to make the most of it, given Bale is likely to return and start in all three, too, fitness-permitting. He's not just plugging the gap now though; he's giving his manager a welcome selection headache for when he has all his attacking options at his disposal. The cry at the start of the season was another addition in attack alongside Bale, but those cries are no longer.
The Ballon d'Or and regular outings for Spain's senior side may be a way off, but Jese is promising big things at the Bernabeu. His future was up in the air last summer, but he eventually penned a new four-year deal to stay in the Spanish capital. Club legend Zinedine Zidane has been helping his development and Madrid needs to handle the player with care in the coming months and years. They've got a real diamond on their hands.