Joselu ready for Real Madrid lead role if Mbappe stays at PSG

Will Joselu be the starting striker for Real Madrid next season? (1:01)

Julien Laurens and Gabriele Marcotti talk about Joselu, Real Madrid's new signing, the 33 year-old is joining the club on loan for one year. (1:01)

Here's an early season knowledge tester for you. Name the player:

- Born in Germany, in the city most famous for its Porsche and Mercedes Benz production, over the last two seasons he's played for two different teams each of which has been relegated.

- Before turning 30, this striker had never scored more than nine times in any of the eight top-division clubs, in the three separate nations (Germany, England and Spain) where he'd played. Underwhelming to say the least.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

By the way, this isn't some sort of unbeatable brain-teaser. You know him, and there's a good chance that you support/admire/fear the club for whom he now plays. Across this man's 14-year career, he'd never won a senior trophy until a couple of months ago and despite the country of his birth, that was for Spain. He's named Jose Luis Mato Sanmartin, born in March 1990 in Stuttgart.

You know him as Joselu. And, if there's no deal struck in the apparently interminable soap opera between Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappe and Real Madrid, then Carlo Ancelotti and Los Blancos will be heavily reliant on this late-blooming phenomenon to score enough goals to win LaLiga and/or the Champions League.

It really is quite the story.

The thing about Joselu, despite being relegated sequentially with Alaves and then Espanyol, is that football -- or the tricky part of scoring heaps of goals -- suddenly became a piece of cake for him once he hit his 30s. A guy who was averaging about seven or eight league goals per season, while rebounding between Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hannover, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Deportivo La Coruna, suddenly burst the net 41 times in 108 games for Alaves and Espanyol -- teams which were poor enough to be relegated.

It was an eruption. Then, finally, he was picked for Spain. New coach, new era, ageing striker.

When La Roja were playing poorly at home to a Norway side without Erling Haaland last March, looking in danger of drawing or losing, Spain coach Luis de la Fuente chucked on this tall, smart, likeable forward in the 81st minute. An international debut, aged 32.

Joselu measured the occasion for all of three minutes, and then repaid his under-pressure coach with two cleverly taken goals in the space of 130 seconds. Spain suddenly had all three points -- and a saviour.

Cut to the Nations League semifinal against Italy in June. Things were (as ever when it's La Roja vs. Gli Azurri) delicately balanced at 1-1 between the European champions and De La Fuente's team in Enschede, Netherlands. On comes Joselu, with the clock racing towards extra time, and before anyone can utter the words "No, he surely couldn't do it again" he deftly clips home the winning goal.

By the time of the final victory over Croatia, Spain's new superman scored the first shootout penalty under searing pressure. The fairy tale was complete when Dani Carvajal's 'Panenka' looped over Dominik Livakovic for victory.

By then, it was an open secret that as soon as his Spain duty finished, with that penalty shootout win over Croatia and the Nations League trophy lifted triumphantly above his head, he was joining Madrid as the direct replacement for Karim Benzema, he of 648 appearances, 24 trophies and 354 goals. Rarely, if ever, has a striker had such a golden harvest in the winter of his career -- scoring for fun, instantly becoming vital for the national team, a trophy winner and vaulting from playing in relegation-quality sides -- to having a chance of winning the Champions League.

In Enschede during the Nations League finals, I asked Joselu about the sudden splurge of goals and suggested that the more responsibility forced upon him, the more he reacted. "The more the seasons pass the better I feel, both mentally and physically," he replied. "This has a big impact on your on-the-pitch performance. It's been proven that the best in the world have performed better and have got better stats after the age of 30. That's true of me and I'm really enjoying myself.

"I want to keep on doing that because I feel really young and alive. This is a special point of my career and I don't want it to end."

Back then, Joselu was about to face a future teammate, Luka Modric. The Croatia international's similar ability to keep on ignoring the passage of years and, somehow, improve was another topic we covered.

"Luka's very smart -- he really is," Joselu said. "He knows how to manage every phase of a game. He's very intelligent -- someone who makes the most of those occasions when he might need to take a breather. He also makes the most of the fact his teams tend to have a lot of possession, so he has the energy to win the ball back quickly.

"His ambition and hunger define him. At 37 years of age he runs and fights as if he's trying to win his first trophy, but it feels like he's already won 50 of them!" In theory, once Modric has digested that June defeat in an international final when the entire world, outside Spain, was willing him and his amazing national team on to victory, he and Joselu are going to get on just fine.

Madrid's new striker learned a lot by moving abroad, even if -- thanks to his mum and dad working in Germany for 20 years and his birth in Stuttgart -- the Bundesliga wasn't really alien territory for him. But between that, and life in the vastly different Stoke and Newcastle, he was transformed personally and professionally. Instead of chasing after every pass like an eager pet retrieving a tennis ball, Joselu learned timing and judgement, honing his instincts as to when a goal might be coming. He ate differently, trained more, changed physically and learned different languages: he took the basic abilities and moulded them to superb effect.

"There was a 'click' in Germany, that's when I became the striker I am now," Joselu said. "I'm happy to battle against centre-halves, smarter about when and where to attack."

It's a pleasure watching this guy perform. He has ample technical ability, but he also picks on defenders. He tries to confuse them, trick them and bully them -- then, when he scores he admits it feels like "a liberation." However, this being the life of a battler and a guy who's never had anything given to him on a plate, his return to Madrid isn't without a shadow over it. He was good enough to be prolific in Real Madrid's youth teams before he was transferred to Hoffenheim, a teammate of Alvaro Morata.

Jose Mourinho gave him fleeting first-team time (and a couple of goals) before Los Blancos decided that they could easily live without him. Now that he's back, the problem has a title that could also be the title of a Cold War thriller: The Mbappe Imbroglio.

No one -- literally no one -- knows with absolute certainty whether the brilliant French striker will end up at Madrid this summer, or next. Such is the agitation at Paris Saint-Germain that any one of three options is feasible: a surprising outbreak of peace whereby he plays all season for Luis Enrique before leaving for free; the punishment of Mbappe being ostracised and not playing for the vast part of the 2023-24 season; or, slightly against the odds, Madrid coughing up a hefty nine-figure sum before this market closes instead of getting him without any transfer fee next July.

It's all very interesting for those who like to gawk at the transfer market, for Mbappe's bank account and a genuinely thrilling prospect for those of us who work around Spanish football. But put yourself in Joselu's shoes and think sympathetically.

If the Frenchman arrives in Madrid, you suddenly drop down from being the main man, centre stage, to the Cinderella pinch-hitter. If Mbappe stays in Paris, then the eyes of the world, and all that pressure they bring, are glaring right at you. It's something, I'd bet, Joselu wishes he could be rationalising and preparing for right now, ahead of Madrid's big season opener against Athletic Club in their hostile San Mames stadium on Saturday.

Whatever happens, one can only hope that the Mbappe soap opera bubbles don't obscure the fact that an interesting, redoubtable and likeable footballer is, suddenly, about to face the challenge of his life among the superstars at Real Madrid. I can't wait to see how he copes.