Raphael Varane
Raphael Varane has excelled in recent weeks, especially in the Classico\'s against Barcelona. [Reuters]

When Zinedine Zidane likened a young French defender to Laurent Blanc you knew he was talking about a very special talent. The teenager in question was Raphael Varane who at the time had only just broken into the Lens first team - no pressure then Raphael.

Zidane made these comments just over two years ago but even he will have been shocked at the rapid rise of the teenager. Even in his early performances he was effortlessly patrolling the backline and displaying an understanding of the game that a mockery of his tender age.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was well aware of the young Frenchman and sent his scouts to the Stade Félix-Bollaert on a number of occasions. At one stage it looked as though Varane would be tempted by the chance to emulate Blanc by pulling on the famous red shirt, but he was tempted by another European superpower.

Zidane told Real Madrid to come in for the defender and helped convince Varane that the Bernebeu was the right option. When announcing his decision to move to Spain, the youngster explained his reason for turning down the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United.

"PSG? The project there wasn't clear. The Qataris had only just arrived and it was all very vague," said Varane. "Manchester United? They had just signed Phil Jones in my position. My first reaction when Real wanted to sign me was not, 'Of course I will go'. I only made my decision when I knew that the coach wanted me to play in the first team."

The lure of first team football was enough for Varane to reject the advances of Ferguson and his decision has been somewhat vindicated. Still just 19-years-old he has made the most of his opportunities and has excelled under the strictest examinations.

With Pepe injured and Sergio Ramos suspended, Varane was brought in for the Cop del Rey semi-final first leg against Barcelona. He delivered a masterful performance, negating the threat of Lionel Messi, clearing one effort off the line and scoring a towering header that helped Madrid secure a 1-1 draw.

This performance was followed by another outstanding performance against Manchester United were he came up against the world class duo of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.

Then came the return leg against Barcelona and this time it was even better for Varane who scored another thumping header which helped secure a 3-1 victory. Across both ties the defender had not conceded a single foul and had made a total of 30 interceptions.

These commanding performances have had his fellow teammates singing his praises. Former Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa was shocked at just how quickly he has progressed.

"Right from the start you could see in training that he had great natural qualities: speed, positioning, power and something that people haven't yet seen - a powerful shot with both feet. But the fact that he has reached this level so fast took everyone by surprise," Arbeloa told the Guardian.

At 6ft 3" and remarkably strong for his age, Varane has not only excelled defensively, but has proven to be a threat from set pieces. In their last eight games Real Madrid have scored five headers from set pieces and two of these have been from the Frenchman.

Against Manchester United on Tuesday evening he will be charged with nullifying the supreme attacking talent that Manchester United have at their disposal. No easy task when Van Persie has been in electrifying form and Rooney is seemingly back to his best.

There is no doubt that Ferguson will also have informed his defenders of the aerial threat that Varane possesses. The one goal they did concede in Spain was a towering header from Cristiano Ronaldo and the last thing United will want is to see the youngster leaping with Patrice Evra or Rafael.

Having already disappointed Manchester United fans once by rejecting the club's advances, Varane could add extra salt into the wound by delivering a performance that keeps Ferguson's men at bay and secures a place in the quarter-final for Real Madrid.