"Real Madrid will not make any signings in the winter transfer market."
—Real Madrid Sporting Director, Predrag Mijatović, September 12, 2008
"This situation obliges us to enter into the winter market. ...It is not about signing for the sake of signing, but to bring in someone who can help until June, and into the future. We are considering several names, and we will do whatever is necessary to sign two or three players."
—Real Madrid Sporting Director, Predrag Mijatović, November 18, 2008
Two months can definitely change a tune.
After a failure to mention anyone other than Cristiano Ronaldo for most of the summer; a last-second scramble to court David Villa and Santi Cazorla; Robinho’s exodus to Manchester City (which, upon seeing his performances for the Blues and for Brazil, Madrid fans are still ruing); a host of losses to injury (in the case of Van Nistelrooy, for the whole season); and form poor enough to warrant the term ‘Crisis’ and speculation of a managerial change; Madrid will be dipping into the pocketbook come January to bring some new faces to the Bernabéu.
A host of names have already been dropped by the gossip-hungry media: Diego Milito, Ricardo Oliveira, Hernán Crespo, Vágner Love, Klass-Jan Huntelaar (who is currently recovering from injury), and Carlos Tévez have all been linked to the Madrid wish list.
As sports-daily Marca has reported, Tévez will be coming…but will not be showing up in a white kit until the 2009 campaign, cutting the list by one. All of the other potential signings on the shortlist are strikers—presumably to serve as a direct replacement in Van Nistelrooy’s absence.
Not to belittle the need for offensive proficiency, but before Madrid clamour for a new ‘number 9’, it bears mentioning that Madrid have already lived—and won—without Ruud. Last season, ‘Van the Man’ had ankle surgery in March (never mind that he hadn’t scored since January 20th—remember it was Raúl who was Madrid’s in-form striker last year), Madrid had just come off their annual loss at Deportivo, and even seven points clear of Barcelona, their title hopes looked to be in jeopardy. Needless to say, there was no cause for alarm as by season’s end, in the same game Ruud made his return, Barça formed a ‘guard-of-honour’ for the La Liga Champions, two years running.
Madrid fans would breathe a collective sigh of relief to know that Higuaín’s ankle injury does not appear to be too serious. ‘El Pipita’ is having a breakout year and has shouldered the goal-scoring duties admirably. Javier Saviola’s patience on the bench seems set to pay off as he will now be given a chance to play. The diminutive ‘Conejo’ is no pushover and would do well to take advantage of this window of opportunity to prove his worth to the side. Furthermore, Alberto Bueno is starting to see some playing time and as he gains confidence, the goals will come.
Living legend Raúl is the wild card. While the icon works hard on the pitch and sets an example in training, he has been anonymous in a bulk of Madrid’s matches—even as the team’s second-leading goalscorer (both all-time and this year). That being said all players exhibit dips in form and to dismiss Raúl as ineffective would be a grave error. Raúl has a habit of silencing his critics with crucial goals and many a commentator has been forced to eat his or her words over the years. When the pressure is on, ‘El Capitan’ has a way of rising to the occasion.
While Madrid’s striking options are not ideal, the front line is certainly adequate. With young and gifted strikers like Benzema, Villa, Tévez and Huntelaar to become hot transfer targets come season’s end, Madrid would arguably do better to hold back on paying a good sum for a less-than-ideal candidate in the winter. Crespo seems to be the leading name on the January wire but at 33, he is no spring chicken. Come Ruud’s return, that makes for a very “experienced” (to put it euphemistically) group of goalscorers. Instead, Los Blancos should sign for need, and two players stand out in particular.
The Prophet Ezequiel
In a brilliant move this summer, highly touted central defender, Ezequiel Garay, was somehow prised away from signing for Barça or Manchester United, and put pen to paper for Los Merengues. The young Argentine is one of the world’s most promising central defenders and at 22 years of age, will look to be a fixture in the Madrid defence for years to come. Having already had two years of La Liga playing experience at Racing Santander, Madrid made the decision to loan him out to the Cantabrian club for an extra year.
With the privilege of hindsight, that summer decision was probably a smart move. A new Madrid signing would have been needed in summer training and Garay benefited enormously from his experience winning a gold medal with Argentina in the Beijing Olympics (as did Gago, Marcelo, and Drenthe—in fact Robinho would probably still be in a white jersey had the Madrid hierarchy permitted him to play for his country, but that is a debate for another time). Garay has now all-but secured a spot in Maradona’s Argentina squad and his play has progressed to a world-class level. He is ready for Madrid and, what’s more, Madrid need him.
It seems that every week the merry-go-round of Madrid’s central defence turns again. Pepe and Cannavaro, the undisputed starters, have both struggled for continued fitness and rarely are they seen together on the pitch in consecutive weeks. Heinze is the typical substitute, but to put it lightly, his defending as a central defender is atrocious and he is much better suited to his natural left-back position.
Sergio Ramos showed in this past weekend’s match against Recreativo that he is a rock in defence. Simply put, he was superb and whereas Madrid is usually praying to the heavens when facing opposing strikers, Saint Iker was barely called upon in the match. Miguel Torres filled in nicely as a right-back, and while Ramos’ future may lie in central defence, there is no substitute for the Andalusian’s marauding runs up the right flank. He is a more valuable asset and a much bigger weapon in the position he fills with La Roja.
As for Metzelder, he seems to have become the new Jonathan Woodgate. Injuries have been a setback and, on the rare occasion he is on the pitch, his defensive errors are numerous and costly. In any event, Schuster seems to have lost faith in his fellow German. Finally, in all fairness, Javi García is not a central defender and he shows it when thrust into the role.
The winter transfer window represents the perfect opportunity for Garay to settle into his new club. With Pepe and Cannavaro in front of him, there would be no immediate pressure for him to perform and under Cannavaro’s tutelage, he would only grow as a player. Furthermore, Garay already plays with Heinze and Gago in the Argentina squad and is comfortable with their styles of play.
As far as social assimilation is concerned, the Argentinean contingent is strong at the Bernabéu and Saviola and Higuaín would only warm the welcome. Lastly, having played in the UEFA Cup with Racing, by rule Garay is not cup-tied and would be able to participate in the Champions League (provided Madrid manage to progress to the Knockout Stage).
The White Russian
Andrei Arshavin has already been linked to a move to Madrid this winter. In fact, his agent recently issued a statement announcing that Madrid were in the best position to sign the Zenit talisman. But since, the media buzz seems to have calmed.
After leading Zenit St. Petersburg to both the Russian Premier League title and the UEFA Cup title in 2007, Arshavin is already a superstar in Russia.
But it was his Euro 2008 campaign that gained Arshavin his recognition and acclaim on the stage of world football. Despite having to sit out the first two matches in the group stage due to suspension, Arshavin was lauded for his performances in Euro 2008. In the third and final match of the group stage against Sweden, Arshavin burst onto the scene by setting up Russia’s first goal and then taking it upon himself to score the second, ensuring Russia’s qualification for the next round. In the epic quarterfinal match against the Netherlands, Arshavin ran rampant against the Dutch defense. Every time he touched the ball he was a threat and in extra time of the thrilling encounter, he made his mark. For the second consecutive match, he set up the first goal of extra time with a pinpoint-accurate cross, and scored his own goal four minutes later with a brilliant strike poked through Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar’s legs. While his showing in the semi-final match against Spain left something to be desired, Arshavin was named in UEFA's squad for Euro 2008 and became a hot topic for a summer transfer to some of Europe’s largest clubs. But some were still unconvinced of his value and Zenit’s asking price was considered too high for the number 10.
Despite publicly announcing his desire to leave and being heavily linked to Barça, Arshavin looked set to endure another cold Russian winter.
Having negotiated with Zenit and asked them to lower their asking price, Arshavin now faces the prospect of finding himself headed to the Bernabéu before too long. And if he comes to the Spanish capitol, he could be the steal of the transfer season. Arshavin is capable of magic—which the Bernabéu faithful love. He has made a habit of dribbling past opponents at will, zigzagging past one, two, three, defenders à la Messi (not to juxtapose him too closely to the incomparable Messidona). Some critics might argue it necessary to consider the level of competition that Arshavin leaves in his wake. While the Russian Premier League is certainly not one of Europe’s best, Arshavin makes international defenders look similarly inept with just as much ease.
Arshavin runs at defenders—a quality sorely missing in Madrid’s current ranks. Higuaín does well with the ball at his feet, Robben is an expert in dribbling at opponents (when he’s not in the infirmary), and Drenthe also has admirable skill on the ball (although at 21 years of age, he is still young and needs to take more care with his possessions), but Arshavin makes incisive runs at opposing defenders with a string connecting the ball to his boots. His vision, creativity, inspiring play, and mercurial pace are what Madrid have sorely missed with the departure of Robinho (again, Drenthe has done his best to fill in, but he is still too young to shoulder the full responsibility). Arshavin’s final pass is sublime, he is more than capable of delivering set-pieces, and he frequently finds himself as the architect of a goal.
The Russian is no slouch either and his physical fitness makes him competent in tracking back in defence. But perhaps his most useful quality, especially for Los Blancos, is his versatility. Arshavin can play as a second striker, an attacking midfielder, or as a left/right winger. Used on the right, he could complement Sergio Ramos and finally help create some balance in the Merengue attack, which would help in shoring up the back line as Ramos would be less obligated to take so many chances going forward.
As for work ethic, Arshavin has something to prove. Playing in the Russian league caused some to label him as overrated and even a riveting Euro 2008 campaign was not enough to warrant a big-money move to one of Europe’s top clubs. A move to Real Madrid would give him the stage to showcase his ability to at the highest level with newfound hunger. If Arshavin’s skill in past matches is any indication of his ability, and Madrid are able to pull off his signing in January, one can imagine that the Madridistas would be more than happy to receive their new star from Russia with love.
As an unfortunate aside, Arshavin has already featured in brilliant Champions League performances for Zenit and would be unable to participate in the prestigious competition were he to sign for Los Blancos. This surely figures to be the only lamentable setback other than the Russian’s forthcoming rift with Wesley Sneijder for the number 10 shirt.
Getting Robben, Diarra, De La Red, and others back from injury will be a huge boost to Los Blancos as they head into 2009. But if Real Madrid sign a striker this January, they should make sure to buy one on the cheap as a reinforcement. And only after they have secured the arrival of the truly important additions: in recalling Ezequiel Garay’s loan to Racing Santander and signing Russian superstar Andrei Arshavin from Zenit St. Petersburg, Madrid could find themselves in pole position to lift the La Liga trophy in Cibeles for the third year running—and Mr. Mijatović could find himself a hero.
Cyrus C. Malek