Kaka's future, Ronaldo's role, the back four among Madrid questions
La Liga runner-up Real Madrid fared well in transfer market, but questions linger
Will Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil pick up where they left off in the World Cup?
Jose Mourinho lacks center forwards, and the back four is young and vulnerable
Last year, reaction to Real Madrid's decision to spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars, described by some as club president Florentino Perez's Galacticos 2.0 project, was mixed. There was no doubting the quality -- at least on paper -- of the new signings, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Xabi Alonso, from Kaka to Karim Benzema, without forgetting valuable "foot soldiers" like Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa and Esteban Granero. At the same time, the moralizers had a field day over the sheer amount of money spent while others weren't sure whether Manuel Pellegrini could meld all the big egos into a cohesive unit.
One year later, the turnaround in perception is nearly 180 degrees. Pellegrini is gone -- perhaps treated a bit harshly, but that's life for managers at Real Madrid -- and in his place is one of the best in the business, Jose Mourinho, he of the six league titles, two Champions League crowns and an array of lesser cups in his last seven full seasons of management.
There are six new signings, five of whom are 23 or younger. They include teenager Sergio Canales, possibly the most exciting young forward in Spain since the days of Fernando Torres; Pedro Leon, one of the most underrated wingers in La Liga last year; Angel Di Maria, a versatile attacking midfielder who at 22 is a mainstay for Argentina; and Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, two of the brightest stars from the young Germany side that turned so many heads at the World Cup. Rounding out the group is Ricardo Carvalho, the kind of veteran defender who has been loyal and effective for Mourinho at Porto and Chelsea. He's 32, but by signing him to only a two-year deal, Real has limited the risk of a sudden decline in skills.
Add it all up and the total summer outlay is roughly what was spent on Ronaldo last season. With so much youth and so much talent joining a team that last season crushed the rest of La Liga (notwithstanding Barcelona, which won the title by three points), it's hard to give Real's summer transfer campaign anything but an A-plus grade.
Hard, but not impossible. Because time will tell how things actually work out. And there are seven questions that will need to be answered:
1. Are Khedira and Ozil as good as advertised?
A basic rule in the transfer market: Never buy players on the strength of a World Cup, because anybody can shine over seven games. At the end of last season, Khedira was a 23-year-old midfielder who had never started more than 24 games in the Bundesliga and had won just two German caps. Had it not been for injuries to Simon Rolfes and Michael Ballack, he probably would not even have started in South Africa. Ozil was a promising attacking midfielder capped eight times for Germany (at the tender age of 21), albeit one who had yet to fully harness his potential, as evidenced by the fact that he had a single season as a bona fide week-in, week-out starter.
The obvious conclusion is that these are two very promising players who have yet to show they can produce to the required standard. The good news is that they have loads of potential and can mature into superstars. The bad news is that, as history shows, Real Madrid, given the pressures, isn't necessarily the best place for young footballers to develop.
2. What happens when Kaka, who is out up to four months, returns?
The Brazilian playmaker had a difficult season at the Bernabeu, and now that he's sidelined after knee surgery, it looks as if Mourinho will put Ozil in the hole and hand him the keys to the team in the 4-2-3-1. That's fine, but when Kaka returns, decisions will have to be made. With Ronaldo and Di Maria seemingly locks out wide, one or the other is going to lose out (unless Mourinho plays Ronaldo as a center forward, something we're told he's reluctant to do). You can't really accommodate four guys of that quality plus a striker in the same team. Real has committed about $150 million to Kaka in wages and transfer fee. If he becomes a write-off, that would be the most expensive in history.
3. How much can Real recoup by selling excess players? And will those players come back to haunt the club?
It's not just about buying, it's about selling too. Last year, Real off-loaded three Dutchmen -- Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben -- and the latter two at least were instrumental in carrying their clubs (Inter and Bayern, respectively) to the Champions League final while also helping the Netherlands reach the World Cup final. You don't want to make the same mistake again with the likes of Lassana Diarra, 25, Fernando Gago, 24, and 27-year-old Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart. There's plenty of good football left in them, though probably not in Madrid. Moving at least two of them is pretty much a necessity; if you keep them around on the bench, their value will fall. The trick is selling them at the best possible price but making sure they don't blossom elsewhere.
4. Can Real really get away with just two center forwards in the squad?
Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain are the only legitimate strikers on the books. (Sure, Ronaldo can play there too, but then he can pretty much play anywhere in the front four). Both are 22 and Benzema is coming off a poor season. Should something go wrong, Real could find itself down to the bare bones very quickly. Bar in mind also that Mourinho has usually had a strapping front man who could play with his back to the goal (Benni McCarthy at Porto, Didier Drogba at Chelsea, Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Inter). Neither Benzema nor Higuain fits that mold (nor, for that matter, does Ronaldo). And while nit-pickers will point out that Mourinho did some of his best work last season with Diego Milito -- hardly a giant at 5-foot-11 -- up front, it's also true that "El Principe" was a veteran forward with loads of experience and savvy in terms of movement and the ability to protect the ball.
5. Can Mourinho persuade Ronaldo to do the kind of job Samuel Eto'o did last season?
Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 worked so well at Inter because Eto'o turned himself from a goal-scoring striker into an unselfish, hard-working winger. It was a credit to both the player for accepting the role and to Mourinho for pushing him to do it. The question is whether Mourinho can get Ronaldo to exhibit the same sacrifice and discipline. Eto'o's goal-scoring total dipped from 30 at Barcelona the year before to just 12 at Inter. Ronaldo had 26 last year in a free-flowing, unshackled front role. What happens if, say, by Christmas, he has scored just four or five? Managing egos has long been one of Mourinho's strengths, and he happens to have the same agent as Ronaldo, Jorge Mendes. Team ethic and winning trophies are important, but for superstars, so are highlights and goal scoring.
6. Will the back four hold up?
There is little question that, in terms of star power, Madrid's defense lags behind the attack. Pepe and Albiol are returning from injuries, Sergio Ramos is much better going forward than defending and, at left back, you can have either a defensive-minded option (Arbeloa) or an attack-minded one (Marcelo). What's more, this is a young unit, in contrast to Mourinho's experience at Chelsea and Inter, where he inherited well-drilled veteran back fours who had been together for years.
7. How will the Spanish media react to Mourinho's playing style?
Madrid, of course, is the place where Fabio Capello could win a league title and then get run out of town for being too defensive. In fact, Pellegrini himself faced charges of being overly cautious last season, despite scoring a record 102 goals. The whole "Bernabeu-demands-entertainment" mantra may be overplayed, but there is no denying that results alone will only take you so far in Madrid. And Mourinho has done much better at delivering results than entertainment in the course of his career. Witness Inter's run in the Champions League or the nervous, seat-of-the-pants way it won Serie A, despite a distinct lack of competition.
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