In reinvigorating a failing squad, albeit one that has won championships, it is difficult to determine the extent to which an overhaul is needed. Sometimes just a few strategic changes are all that is needed. Despite a third-place finish in La Liga and a humiliating pasillo honour guard at the Bernabeu, Barcelona still managed to reach the Champions League semi-finals last year. Just two major replacements were made in the squad as Dani Alves and Gerard Pique were brought in for the departing Ronaldinho and Deco (it is safe to say that Seydou Keita, Sergi Busquets, Martin Caceres and Aliaksandr Hleb are mainly role players in this year’s Barcelona squad), along with the very important replacement of Frank Rijkaard for the superb Pep Guardiola.
In rebuilding Real Madrid’s squad, personnel decisions will come down to the manager (be it Juande Ramos or otherwise) as he attempts to develop a competitive dynamic that translates into beautiful and balanced team play on the pitch. It is through this lens that this columnist attempts to analyse Real Madrid’s current squad and determine which of Los Blancos have the potential and versatility to become part of Real Madrid’s vision for the future. The recommendations are as follows:
Higuain (Stays): Higuain is everything a manager wants in a youngster — tireless effort on the pitch, determination to the final whistle, a willingness to learn and improve, and commitment to team play. Having delivered Liga-winning goals when Madrid have needed them most, Higuain is the heir to Raul’s second striker position and a fixture in the Madrid squad of the future. A certain rumour claiming Madrid could use Higuain as a pawn in a deal to bring over Zlatan Ibrahimovic should be quickly and decisively rubbished. With 19 goals in only his second full season, the 21-year-old Argentine has all the makings of a star.
Raul (Stays): Despite a reported offer from Manchester City, the Madrid skipper has and will always be an icon for Los Blancos. He has delivered some crucial goals this season and serves as a reference for the team with his work ethic and leadership, both on and off the pitch. But age is beginning to catch up with 'El Capitan' and he is losing the pace, technique and strength it takes to compete at the highest level. His role has begun to change and 2010 could see Raul come on as a substitute to push his team on in the final stretch of matches.
Van Nistelrooy (Goes): Another serious knee injury to ‘Van the Man’ coupled with his 33 years of age means it will be difficult for the striker to wear a Madrid shirt again. He has been mulling retirement…
Robben (Goes): At times during the season, Robben has been Madrid’s best player and, at top form, one of the best in the world. Mercurial pace, an uncanny ability to dribble past opponents and a powerful left foot make parting ways with the Dutchman seem like foolishness. But Robben has been inconsistent, at times dominating matches, but remaining anonymous in some of Madrid’s most crucial encounters. He also fails to use his team-mates constructively, too often opting to do it all himself and failing to make the final pass. A further worrying point is the ease with which he sustains injury — although he recently seems to have put the niggles behind him and recovered faster than anticipated to play in El Clasico. Madrid paid €36 million for him and will likely use his sale to finance the acquisition of Ribery, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Silva/Villa, Kaka or Fabregas — all of this despite Robben’s recent statements expressing his desire to stay…
Huntelaar (Uncertain): The only true striker in Madrid’s current active roster, Huntelaar had a difficult welcoming to the Bernabeu, unable to play in the Champions League and unable to find the back of the net for weeks. He did have a very productive spell during Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Barcelona, scoring 8 goals, but if Madrid manage to land David Villa or Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the summer, ‘Hunletal’ could find himself out of a White shirt come next season.
Van der Vaart (Goes): Brought in after Wesley Sneijder sustained a terrible injury in the preseason, Van der Vaart impressed in his first few matches for Madrid. One highlight included a hat-trick, one goal of which was deftly flicked in with a back-heel. But since, Van der Vaart has been largely anonymous in the squad and, though he possesses enormous talent, his style of play does not seem best suited for La Liga. Madrid have already tested Chelsea’s interest in the Dutchman.
Drenthe (Loan Out): Having endured the hardest season of any Madridista, Drenthe has been literally jeered out of the Bernabeu — although the reason is not entirely clear. As one of the fastest players in world football, Drenthe still lacks the refined skills necessary to play at a club like Real Madrid, but a season loaned out to a Premier League club could see this exceptional talent blossom into one of the most exciting players of the next generation. If he is given some confidence, he could be something very, very special.
Saviola (Goes): A player who has never truly lived up to his potential, Saviola has spent yet another year collecting world-class wages without playing world-class football. He has been disappointing.
De la Red (Done Playing Football): One of Madrid’s brightest prospects and a rising star with the Spanish national team, De la Red may never recover from his heart problems to play football again. A huge loss for Madrid to lose this youth product, who had the ability to be far better than Guti ever was.
Guti (Goes): One tantrum too many and a clever pass too few. The vice-captain does not contribute enough to warrant a roster spot in a new, competitive Madrid — a shame because when on form, he is one of the best attacking midfielders in the Spanish game.
Sneijder (Stays): Although this was not one of Wesley’s greatest seasons by any means, he remains a good player who has the ability and versatility to play in a number of systems. His hard work ethic and modest ego make him a valuable member of any team and he should have the chance to contribute to Madrid’s future endeavours.
Javi Garcia (Uncertain): Not enough was seen from the Madrid youth product this season to warrant forcing him out of the club. Having said that, if Madrid are able to tempt an acceptable offer, they could part ways with the defensive midfielder.
Mahamadou Diarra (Stays): Before his season-ending injury, Diarra was one of the most important defensive figures in the Madrid squad. While some believe the arrival of Lass during the winter makes Diarra redundant, the presence of the Malian alongside the French international could transform Madrid into a physical side that can contend with some the stronger English sides in the Champions League. Besides, Madrid bought him for €27 million and coming off of a major injury, it will be difficult to get that sort of value from his sale.
Lass (Stays): In a recent Marca poll, Lass earned a 96 per cent approval rating from voters — one per cent more than Iker Casillas. The Bernabeu adores Juande Ramos’ winter signing and the French international puts in the hard work to earn the applause. One who leads on the pitch by example.
Marcelo (Stays): For quite some time it looked as if Marcelo would never play again for Madrid. But since a brilliant showing in Dunga’s Brazil side against Italy, Marcelo has broken out as a player with great potential, inventive style, pace and a competitive desire to help his team. However, it remains to be seen if the Brazilian will be employed as a winger or if his defending has improved enough for full-time duties as a left-back.
Sergio Ramos (Stays): With the anticipated departures of Guti and Michel Salgado, Sergio Ramos looks set to take over as Madrid’s third captain. There are some rumours, however, linking Inter’s Maicon to Madrid and should the Brazilian right-back be signed it is likely that Sergio Ramos will make the switch to central defence. How such a change settles with the long-locked defender remains to be seen; he is the undisputed starter at right-back for the Spanish national squad.
Casillas (Stays): An unquestionable linchpin in the Madrid squad and will likely serve as the first Merengue captain with Raul set to take on a more withdrawn role. He is an enormously effective leader as captain of the Spanish national team and he should fulfil the same role wearing the armband at Madrid. The perfect man to lead Madrid in a new direction.
Pepe (Stays): Losing his head in the Getafe match was something of an aberration. Pepe remains an excellent central defender and as the second fastest player in the Madrid squad behind Robben, does an excellent job of closing down danger at the back; with his height, he is also a force to be reckoned with in the air. If the rumours about Sergio Ramos’ switch to the centre are true, this could be one of the most imposing defensive pairings in all of Europe.
Cannavaro (Goes): The Italian has already had one foot out of the Spanish capital during the final quarter of the season and looks set to join Juventus next year. While he has lost much of his pace, he remains an excellent director of the back line and the Merengue defence looks shaky without him. Someone else will need to step up and take charge in his wake.
Metzelder (Stays): Although he has not seen too much playing time at Madrid, Metzelder remains an excellent defender, as he has shown time and time again with the German national side. In his time under Juande Ramos he has shown glimpses of why Schuster bought him in the first place and he could still have plenty to offer Madrid in the coming years.
Heinze (Goes): The Argentine international is past his prime and some of his far too frequent mistakes have cost Madrid crucial matches. The left-back position needs a huge upgrade and whether Marcelo is the man to slot in or another signing, Heinze has played his last of matches at the Bernabeu.
Torres (Stays): First making his appearance in the side under Fabio Capello, Miguel Torres is an all-business defender who still has a great upside. Despite his age, he has already played three full seasons in the first team and his status as a Madrid youth product makes him something of a fan favourite.
Faubert (Goes): Never really a serious signing, Faubert was brought to Madrid as an insurance policy in case Robben went out with a serious injury. His loan deal from West Ham will be allowed to expire and he will return to the English club.
Parejo (Stays): Dani Parejo is another one of the Madrid youth program’s promising young gems and former Castilla manager/current Getafe coach Michel is one of Parejo’s biggest fans. The youngster has only played 29 minutes in three matches since being recalled from his loan deal in the winter and next season it will be exciting to watch this starlet demonstrate his ability.
Gago (Uncertain): Gago looked to be a promising signing when coming over from Boca Juniors during Fabio Capello’s year at the helm. After a brilliant showing at the Beijing Olympics last summer, it looked as if Gago was going to develop into a superb midfielder a la Redondo. Instead, the Argentine has been alarmingly absent in some of Madrid’s biggest matches and, especially if Mahamadou Diarra is retained, could find himself as the extra man out. Madrid are rumoured to be exploring the option of offering Gago in a cash plus player deal for Cesc Fabregas.
Salgado (Goes): The Galcian right-back still has decent pace, but at 33 is on his last legs at the Bernabeu. His future could lie in Dubai, playing for a club in cosmopolitan Emirate.
Dudek (Goes): Playing behind Iker Casillas translates into very little playing time at all. Dudek is not getting any younger and will seek more regular playing time elsewhere.
Codina (Stays): With the opportunity to work directly as Casillas’ understudy, Codina may stick around a bit longer and will do well to take his playing time in next year’s Copa del Rey to improve should (Heaven forbid) Iker sustain an injury. The Madrid youth product is a very capable keeper and should excel if given the opportunity.
Loans to Recall:
Ezequiel Garay: Garay was a prize signing last summer, being pulled right out from underneath Barcelona’s searching nose, and was loaned out to Racing for another year to gain some valuable playing time. Now, he will make his home at the Bernabeu and with Sergio Ramos, Pepe, and Metzelder, help shore up the problems that Madrid always seem to experience in the centre of defence.
Esteban Granero: Madrid would do well to exercise the buyback clause in Granero’s contract. The midfielder has shown a great improvement in his two years at Getafe and 'El Pirata' single-handedly skinned the Madrid defence in Getafe’s visit to the Bernabeu this season. He deserves a chance in the first team.
Alvaro Negredo: One of the best players in La Liga this season, the 23-year-old Madrid youth product has a buyback clause in his contract that Los Blancos will be very eager to pay. The looming striker scored 19 goals this season with Hugo Sanchez’s Almeria and would be a great addition to a Madrid squad that is lacking strikers of the classic ‘No. 9’ variety.
And so concludes this columnist's forecast for Madrid's current squad. Who do you think has earned the right to stay or has committed one to many errors to wear the Madrid crest?
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com