By Paul Macdonald
In the past few years, it almost feels like we have been deprived of witnessing one of the game's global stars in his absolute pomp. Kaka's move to Real Madrid in 2009 should have heralded an entirely new chapter in the career of the graceful Brazilian, after six years establishing a legacy at AC Milan.
He departed San Siro an almost peerless idol; yet in Madrid, they would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.
The playmaker has, for a number of reasons, failed to replicate his Milan form in the Spanish capital. The impeccably poised, demonstrably gifted individual who collected the 2007 Ballon d'Or, as well as the Champions League in the same year, has looked a sluggish, shoulder-slumped soul at times when dressed all in white. The descent for a player who could once lay claim to being the finest talent in the world was as disappointing for the Madridistas as it was for football purists who had extracted pleasure from watching him at work.
It is true that injury has plagued his 24 months in Madrid; the knee problem that was eventually properly tended to after the 2010 World Cup, and left him sidelined for six months of 2010-11, had patently also interrupted his performances in his debut season, for he never threatened to exert the influence he had showcased so confidently in Italy.
Furthermore, a €68 million price tag looming ominously over his head weighed all too heavy. Broad shoulders - Cristiano Ronaldo-sized shoulders - are required to understand and accept the colossal expectation. And while the Portuguese has positively flourished since becoming one of los nuevos Galácticos, Kaka toiled to be the player that everyone expected.
|KAKA: A COMPARISON | AC Milan vs Real Madrid since 2005
The dichotomy of poise versus pace and power between him and Ronaldo in that first season was often won by the latter, and his bullish desire to dominate every match, both in terms of superiority over the opposition, but also in how his own team should approach the match. He isn't the God-like genius at Madrid that he was at Milan; here, at the moment, Ronaldo rules the roost.
But for Kaka, the time for excuses are over. His knee is no longer a burden. He can undertake a full pre-season training programme without nagging self-doubt as to his body's capability to withstand it. He can ensure that he has never been more readily prepared for a season in his career. His omission from Brazil's Copa America squad, while a disappointment but far from a surprise, can be utilised positively, and give him additional weeks to ensure he is fully equipped for, from a personal perspective, a pivotal year in his career.
His first hurdle will be competing to be accommodated regularly in Jose Mourinho's starting XI, because while he recuperated last year, Madrid emphatically moved forward. Mesut Ozil's arrival from Werder Bremen was met with a comparatively muted fanfair in comparison to the 29-year-old's first appearance brandishing the white jersey, but Ozil's understated genius marked him out as one of the finest performers across Europe in 2010-11. The German international managed 24 assists in 53 games - almost a one in two ratio. If Mourinho stays true to a 4-2-3-1 formation next season, with Ronaldo operating from the left and Angel Di Maria from the right, Kaka will be in direct competition with a player who created the most goals on the continent across the campaign - a daunting challenge.
|"For Kaka, the time for excuses are over. His knee is no longer a burden...he can ensure that he has never been more readily prepared for a season in his career."
His regular inclusion, therefore, is far from definitive, and indeed Kaka could learn a lesson from the way in which Ozil has integrated into Madrid's play. Almost from the outset, the 23-year-old appeared attuned to what was expected of him - with a definition and assuredness that Kaka has never offered. Furthermore, the South American has some way to go to prove to his dissenters that he is capable of recapturing former glories. From two years in the wilderness, he must, if given the opportunity, offer an indication that the pre-2009 Kaka is still very much alive, from the outset.
A number of commentators need to be convinced, but from the player's point of view, it is only Mourinho that needs to be dazzled. The former Chelsea and Inter coach referred to him as a "new signing" upon his return to action in January, but used him sparingly in the months that followed as he was unconvinced that the Kaka was quite ready to return to his impeccably high standard. He too knows that now is the moment for the midfielder to define his Madrid career. There is still time for him to flourish, to regain the belief of those who feel his chance may have passed. The confidence and swagger of those halcyon Milan days needs to return; he must find himself amidst the encircling uncertainty.
He is correctly critical of his own performances, telling the media: "I did not match my expectations, as well as those of the media and fans. I hope and expect to do great things at Real Madrid." It is clear that Kaka faces a momentous task to resuscitate his global standing among the world's best, but the capital giants will add another formidable weapon to their arsenal if he rediscovers the form that, for a spell, marked him out as untouchable in the game.
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