A rescue remedy for Real Madrid
Real Madrid hasn't made the quarterfinals of the Champions League in five years
Raging inconsistencies and coaching, front-office turmoil have plagued storied club
Current roster doesn't need an overhaul, but simple tweaks could improve team
It was Real Madrid's most humiliating European night in a long, long time. And in some ways, the 4-0 loss to Liverpool on Tuesday hurt more than the 5-0 defeat to Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan team 20 years ago.
That Milan side was in the midst of a cycle of success that would see it win five Serie A titles and three Champions League crowns in eight years. This Liverpool side hasn't won an English title in nearly 20 years, is managed by a Spaniard (who, ironically, used to work at Real) and features a number of key Spanish players in its lineup.
Throw in the fact that Real Madrid -- the most glorious club side in the world -- hasn't reached the Champions League quarterfinals in five years and that presidential elections are coming up this summer, and you can only conclude that, once again, it's time to regroup and rebuild.
No use pointing fingers and trying to figure out what went wrong. It's done, it's time to look ahead. Suffice to say that, despite the two league titles won under Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster in the past two seasons, Real Madrid hasn't lived up to its pedigree since the days of Vicente del Bosque.
Tough choices lie ahead for those choosing the next president (and, likely, the next manager and big signing). Here are six basic principles which ought to guide that decision:
1. Find the positives in the current crop of players. And, yes, there are positives. This may not be a great Real side, but it clawed back to within six points of Barcelona in La Liga, and the next head-to-head between the Spanish giants is at home at the Bernabéu. Win that, and you'll need to make up another four points in the other 11 games to win the league. Barcelona is a great side, but it lacks depth up front and its continued Champions League run is bound to sap resources. Real owes it to itself and to its fans to take it to the wire.
2. Build on the defense. Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe can form the backbone of the back line. At left back, you can probably squeeze another year out of Gabriel Heinze, but the priority ought to be figuring out whether Miguel Torres or Marcelo (who has shown more maturity, albeit in midfield) are long-term solutions. Either way, in terms of big signings, the only real need is somebody to replace Fabio Cannavaro who, at 35, needs to be upgraded.
3. The midfield obviously needs an overhaul. But Fernando Gago is 22 and Lassana Diarra 23 -- they're not part of the problem, they're part of the solution. And when Mahamadou Diarra returns, you'll have another useful defensive option in the middle of the park. The problem is what to do with the "skill" positions. Arjen Robben is a tricky, talented player. He's also injury-prone -- he hasn't started more than 21 league games in a season since 2003. You can't count on him.
To what degree you can count on Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart is also open to debate. Sneijder is a gifted, creative guy, but he has little physical presence. That's fine, provided you have complementary players around him. And that means there's no room for both Sneijder and van der Vaart -- a slower, less dynamic version of Sneijder -- in the same lineup. Not in the modern game, anyway.
4. Develop a Plan B at forward. Up front, Ruud van Nistelrooy turns 33 this summer and he's been injured since the start of November. At this stage, it's a case of taking what you can get from him. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is prolific; you've spent big money on him and you have to see if he can play, but it makes sense to develop a backup plan in the center-forward department. Gonzalo Higuaín has shown he can operate at this level and he's a keeper. Just remember that he's 21 and is bound to be inconsistent at times. Then there's Raúl. He's 31 and isn't going anywhere. He's intelligent enough to put the team first and to reinvent his role if need be, but you also have to be realistic: He's not the player he was.
5. Don't blow up this team and start from scratch. And any manager who suggests it should be stricken from list of candidates immediately. You do need to spend big on a central defender and an attacking midfielder, preferably one with size and goals in him (a young Michael Ballack or Steven Gerrard type would be nice). Beyond that, the goal should be offloading some big earners and adding some depth (a young striker, willing to bid his time and learn from van Nistelrooy and Raúl, would fit in well).
6. Look for a manager who understands Real's history and tradition and is willing to maintain it. For instance, It makes no sense to sign Capello -- as Real did a few years ago -- and then complain about his style. Don't feel you need some kind of Messiah who'll want a four-year deal and 10 new players, either. You're Real Madrid -- a good, confident manager who respects the size and importance of the club will come even if it's a short-term deal (as Juande Ramos did). And if you can't get a guy who is clearly better than Ramos, don't be afraid to stick with him. Real has had enough revolving-door managers in recent seasons. Most of all, remember who you are, where you come from and what made you great.