Monday, June 18, 2007

Seven Questions About Real Madrid

Watching yesterday’s stirring Real Madrid victory over Mallorca was probably the most fun I’ve had watching a game this year. Not only did Real win the game, but they did it in their own particular style, coming from behind to win the game and the Liga title over Barca. I loved every minute of it.

Since I live in the U.S., I have the luxury of supporting a number of clubs around the world. Aside from my hometown New England Revolution, I like Fiorentina in Italy, Sheffield United in England and Real Madrid in Spain. Of course, it was nearly a very dry season. Sheffield was relegated (virtually assuring I will not see them on television for all of next year) while Fiorentina had to fight for its life after a huge points deduction. Real Madrid, meanwhile, started the season with some hope before nearly collapsing around the holidays due to infighting, out-of-control egos, poor coaching and even poorer play. On January 7, I tried a new gimmick column where I “graded” every player on the team after a particularly frustrating loss. I didn’t keep up with the idea because this is a general interest football page and not one dedicated solely to Real Madrid. But today I want to talk about the blancos a little more, looking forward to next season in celebration of the great victory they have achieved this weekend. Below are seven questions every Real fan needs to ask as they finally head into the silly season.

What’s Capello Going to Do?

Head Coach Fabio Capello had a strange year. He began the season with great promise and expensive new signings. He loaded up even more during the winter break. But the first half of the year was a disaster; winnable games were lost and even wins were completed in a grim and boring style. There was serious talk of the great coach being fired around Christmas. After the holidays he benched David Beckham, a move he himself later judged to be among the worst decisions of his career. (This week he said Beckham was one of the greatest players he has ever coached.)

On the plus side, Capello eventually reinstated the former English skipper and the club went on an unprecedented winning streak that culminated in the league title, Real’s first in four years. By the end of the season Real was virtually spotting the opposition a goal every time then coming back with two or three of their own. Capello got the boys to believe in what they were doing, and by admitting and correcting his own mistakes, he saved the season. Should he be brought back? Yes? Will he? I don’t know; no one is even sure if he wants to come back at this point.

Why would Real Madrid let some homeless man play center-forward for them, and while wearing Raul’s shirt, no less?
Wait, that was Raul. He just played the entire season like a homeless man who had never seen a football before, alternating between being terrible and being invisible. Capello’s hard-man coaching style did not extend to Raul, probably the only sacred cow left in Real’s stable. Will they put up with another year of this for the fans or finally get some help for van Nistleroy? Stay tuned…

Who will replace Beckham?
David Beckham, along with Rudd van Nistleroy, was Real’s best player and arguably one of the five or six best players in all of Spain for the last two months of the season. We all know he is going to LA to become a scientologist, but who will play the Beckham role for Madrid? Franck Ribery was an appealing option, but he has gone to Bayern Munich. Real will have to look elsewhere, and replacing his passing, crosses, free kicks, and leadership will not be easy.

What’s the future of Robinho?
Robinho, at times, looks like he has the potential to be the best player in the world. And I love how he attacks, attacks, attacks. But he was given a major chance to start a bunch of games at the tail end of the season and didn’t produce like his fans had hoped. Like Christiano Ronaldo, he needs to move from the pretty stepovers to finishing, and he needs to do it soon. There are rumors he may be sold this summer; if not, he probably has one more chance to prove himself, and I sure hope he does.

How fast is Cannavaro going to high-tail it back to Italy?
Presumably, very fast. As I said in my January 7 column, there has probably never been a worse reining player of the year than Fabio Cannavaro, who has had some nice moments but generally has looked startlingly slow as opponents have continuously blown by him for easy goals. Cannavaro was more comfortable in defensive-minded Italy, and Real needs a stopper in the back that allows the hugely talented Sergio Ramos to go forward.

What will Real do on the transfer market?
Most of the news involves Kaka, with a smattering of stories about Henry. Obviously, either one would look great in the white shirt, but someone would need to explain to me why AC Milan/Arsenal would sell either one. Regardless, Madrid needs help at forward, on the wings and at center back. Plus, they have to fill the geriatric shoes of Roberto Carlos. And there could be, of course, massive changes at Barca, where everyone seems to be available except for little Leo Messi. Hard not to imagine there won’t be one major (dare I say “galactic”) signing.

Am I looking forward to my vacation for Ray Hudson?
In a word: yes. Like a kid looking forward to Christmas.

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