COMMENT: The Blancos should be building on last season's success. Instead, coach Carlo Ancelotti must reshape the team again after a summer of unnecessary changes
Only at Real Madrid. Exactly 100 days after winning their 10th European Cup, Spain's biggest club crashed to a humiliating 4-2 at Real Sociedad on Sunday that highlighted the flaws of a baffling transfer policy. Madrid are weaker now than they were three months ago.
Madrid missed the suspended Xabi Alonso terribly in the Champions League final against Atletico and almost lost in Lisbon. But they went on to win it thanks to Sergio Ramos' late leveller and a wonderful run by Angel Di Maria in extra-time. Now, both the Basque midfielder and the Argentine winger are gone.
It is not unusual for teams to cash in on some of their most marketable players after a successful season in continental competition. But Madrid are not a selling club. They are the world's richest team and winning La Decima should have been the start of something special.
It still could be. But with Alonso and Di Maria moved on, Ancelotti has lost two of his key players, two vital cogs in a team which struggled for months to find 'balance' last season before the Italian tweaked the formation and found favour with 4-3-3. Xabi's return from injury in the role of deep-lying pivot provided much-needed stability, while the reinvention of the Argentine as a multi-functional 'interior' strengthened the team in both attack and defence.
|INS & OUTS AT MADRID THIS SUMMER
|PLAYERS BROUGHT IN
|Javier Hernandez||Man Utd
|Angel Di Maria||Man Utd||€75m|
|Diego Lopez||AC Milan||Free|
"Madrid kept looking for the formula when they had already found it," Real's former striker, coach and sporting director Jorge Valdano said last week. How true.
With Di Maria and Alonso still at the club, James and Kroos could have been eased into their roles. Now, they will be expected to make an instant impact and pressure is increasing already after Sunday's shocker in San Sebastian.
Likewise, the goalkeeping position remains problematic as Iker Casillas' crumbling confidence continues to cause concern and summer signing Keylor Navas watches on from the bench. Madrid, meanwhile, paid Diego Lopez the remainder of his contract and let him leave the club for free. As Casillas flapped on Sunday, the Galician saved a penalty and made several inspired interventions in an impressive debut for AC Milan against Lazio. More salt into the wounds for Real.
"I have an opinion and it's very clear," Cristiano Ronaldo said on Sunday. "I can't always say what I want, but if I were in charge [at Madrid], I wouldn't have done things the way they were done..."
Of course he wouldn't. Ronaldo remembers the final in Lisbon and just how close the team came to losing until Ramos headed home deep into stoppage time, how Madrid wilted without Xabi in midfield as Atleti dominated in the centre for much of the night. And how, later, Di Maria's zig-zag run set up Gareth Bale for the decisive goal in extra-time. Di Maria made his presence felt, but Alonso's absence almost cost them the trophy.
A replica of that trophy now stands in the club's museum alongside the previous nine and president Florentino Perez proudly poses in front of that shiny silverware when new signings are unveiled. However, it may be a while now before the club can claim an 11th to sit next to the fabled Decima.
"The squad is stronger than it was last year," Ancelotti has repeatedly said, even though he would like to have kept both Alonso and Di Maria.
The Italian is ever the diplomat and his public support for Perez and Madrid's transfer policy is unsurprising because the decisions, after all, are made above his head. Nevertheless, he is the one who must make it work on the pitch and instead of building a dynasty after last season's Copa del Rey and Champions League wins, he has to take the team apart again and put it back together.
Two steps forward, three steps back. When will Madrid ever learn?