Halftime for Real Madrid’s neo-Galácticos
What do you buy with €250 million? If you’re Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, you acquire a handful of the world’s most highly valued football players in a bid to create the best team on the planet. After his uncontested election as club president last summer, Pérez went shopping for a gaggle of superstars. Cristiano […]
By Guy Hedgecoe
What do you buy with €250 million? If you’re Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, you acquire a handful of the world’s most highly valued football players in a bid to create the best team on the planet.
After his uncontested election as club president last summer, Pérez went shopping for a gaggle of superstars. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema were the biggest signings – major talents who had established themselves in the English, Italian or French leagues with style and goals.
Six months on from the euphoria (at least in Madrid) surrounding Pérez’s arrival and consequent recession-defying splash-out, it’s a good time to take stock and gauge the success of his neo-Galáctico project. Does a quarter of a billion euros buy a world-beating team, or just a world-beating bunch of egos?
A glance at the bald facts suggests Pérez is on the right track. Real Madrid are not leading the league, but they are second, five points behind Pep Guardiola’s sextuple-winning Barcelona (the team some have labelled the “best of all time”). After 19 games, Real have won 14, drawn two and lost three. The defeats were all away and by one goal: 2-1 to a devastating Sevilla, a tightly fought 1-0 at Barcelona and a rather unlucky 1-0 against Athletic Bilbao in the hostile San Mamés.
In the Champions League, meanwhile, the whites qualified for the knock-out round comfortably and face the enigmatic Olympique Lyon for a place in the quarters, which they have not reached since 2004.
The big debacle
The Copa del Rey, the least of Real’s priorities, has been the only unmitigated disaster this season. Third-division Alcorcón dumped Real out of the competition effectively in the first-leg of their tie in late October, winning 4-0. Real’s 1-0 response in the return game was not enough. Such were the repercussions of the aggregate defeat that “alcorconazo” has become a new, onomatopoeic word in the Spanish lexicon, meaning something like: “the toppling of a much vaunted institution from its perch by a workmanlike underdog in spectacular style.”
That drubbing on the suburbs of Madrid appeared to be the unravelling of a dream for Florentino Pérez, as he gazed down from the VIP box. Admittedly, Ronaldo was injured and a congested fixture list meant that coach Manuel Pellegrini didn’t play many of his first-team choices. But even so, clearly something was deeply wrong. Mercurial midfield tantrum-thrower Guti summed it up best, his frustration boiling up and over as he swore and gesticulated at his semi-professional opponents before giving the finger to the local supporters who had been baiting him. During half-time he told Pellegrini in no uncertain terms where to shove his instructions. Team spirit, it seems, cannot be bought.
The Alcorcón debacle came just days after a damaging but ultimately not terminal 3-2 defeat to AC Milan in the Champions League and a dull goalless draw against mid-table Sporting Gijon in the league. The knives were already being sharpened for the calm Pellegrini two months into the season, with pro-Real daily Marca screaming “Go now!”
And yet now, Real look ahead to the second half of the season with a degree of confidence. For one thing, this club rather obsessively measures its own success against that of its arch-rival and Barcelona have finally showed chinks of weakness of late. The Catalans may be unbeaten in the league this season, but they were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Sevilla; for a while, coach Pep Guardiola appeared to be delaying over the signing of a new contract before verbally agreeing to remain at the Camp Nou; and doubts have arisen over the wisdom of his summer purchase of underperforming defender Dmitro Chygrynskiy for 25 million euros.
More relevantly, Pellegrini seems to have found a settled starting line-up and the team looks tougher for it. Few took him for a ruthless butcher of sacred cows when he arrived from Villarreal, but lately the Chilean has found no place for the increasingly slow Raúl, a taboo his predecessors refused to broach for 15 years. He has also sidelined the brittle Guti since his Alcorcón outburst.
Ronaldo has frequently shown his ugly self-regard this season, but is an automatic pick up front, alongside the low-key yet lethal Gonzalo Higuaín. Marcelo has been versatile and a dangerous presence down the left flank, as both a defender and a midfielder. At the back, Iker Casillas is still the world’s best goalkeeper.
“For the first two months of the season Madrid looked awful, but now they have a style of play,” says José Luis Noriega, editor of the desmarcados football blog. “Pellegrini has come from relatively small teams with one big star, but now he is having to adapt to this new situation.”
The theory is that this band of Galácticos and near-Galácticos will storm through the rest of the season, improving with each game until they bypass Barcelona in the league and reach the Champions League final which will be played, fittingly, in the Bernabéu. After all, Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez recently said that “in March (Real) could be unbeatable”. Simple, right?
Not really. First of all, Pellegrini has to address some basic issues, such as a settled and reliable defence in the absence of Pepe, who has a long-term injury. Xabi Alonso in theory forms a bionic partnership with Lassana Diarra in central midfield, but the former has only rarely looked like the player he was at Liverpool. The coach also needs more width going forward. Despite some obvious fire-power up front, Ronaldo and particularly the disappointing Kaká are prone to blasting long-range shots into defenders’ shins rather than seeking out the extra pass which the Bernabéu faithful so crave. The beautifully slow build-up play that Real’s 1998 Champions League winners made their speciality is absent, instead we have a fast-moving, counter-attacking side who on their day can stream-roll lesser opposition but have yet to prove they can come out on top against the big teams – or indeed produce the aesthetically pleasing play this club built its reputation on.
If the Real Madrid fans and media machine can resist waving their hankies or demanding Pellegrini’s resignation after every below-par performance, this team might yet live up to its Galáctico billing. For now, it has its feet all too firmly on the ground, the weight of expectation of €250 million keeping them there.
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