PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 11: Karim Benzema #9 of Real Madrid is congratulated for a second half goal by teammates Mesut Ozil #10 and Angel Di Maria #22 during the match against Celtic at Lincoln Financial Field on August 11, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Real Madrid won 2-0. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
We finish up our preview of the coming season and of the individual players with our attacking midfield, our wingers and our forwards.
This piece concludes with a prospective line-up for the game against Valencia at the Santiago Bernabéu this Sunday August 19 at 19:00.
Mesut Özil had a solid Euros; brilliant in some games, good in others. Germany, who were tournament favorites, lost unluckily in the semifinal when the team conceded early and then conceded again while trying to get the equalizer. Something to note about Özil’s game against Italy: he was one of a few players on a very young squad (Khedira was another) who kept their heads up and went on playing to win when the team were struggling. While he has always had this attitude toward his games, it has really been nurtured by Mourinho.
The Special One took time out this summer to pronounce him the best #10 in the world.
His preseason has been very good. When he has started games, he has shown the type of patient hard-work and occasional brilliance we’ve come to expect from him in breaking down teams that sit deep to defend. When he is substituted on, the team plays markedly better football. His defensive work rate is the most improved on the team and was especially evident during his outing against LA Galaxy.
Kaká has occasionally struggled this preseason from what we can probably put down to lack of confidence. When starting games (Benfica, Celtic) he has been average. His substitute appearance against AC Milan however, when he was greeted (understandably enough) with a huge ovation from fans of both teams was wonderful. One hesitates to put too much emphasis on an appearance against a team that was playing with its backs to the wall for 60 minutes and was already two goals down, but it was certainly interesting.
For another year, we go into a new season not quite knowing what to expect from Kaká. His struggles when starting may simply be a lack of confidence and an uncertainty about the future. If that’s the case we can probably expect another good, solid year from the Brazilian, since a few good games or outstanding substitute appearances will build his confidence. Judging from his cameo against AC Milan the quality is definitely still there - the intelligence, the passing, the goal-scoring ability – only the confidence when starting seems to be missing.
Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Madrid as one of the summer tournament’s stand-outs. He single-handedly got his unfancied team out of the group of death and into the quarter finals where he then dragged them, kicking and screaming, into the semi-finals and helped them make an outstanding Spanish team look quite average for long portions of the game. His team ended up within one penalty kick (his kick, as it happens) of the final.
He returns to us as the favorite for this year’s Ballon d’Or, a finalist for UEFA’s best player of the year award, in good physical condition, and looking as sharp as ever in the preseason.
José Callejon was one of the standouts of the preseason stage in the United States. As usual, he was better as an impact substitute than as a starter. His attributes are speed and the ability to take advantage of the extra space left in front of goal by teams trying to score when Madrid is ahead and then finishing off the game with a strike.
He seems to score whenever he’s substituted on, and plays very competently when he does start. One thing I have noted this month is that his defensive contribution is extremely good. The ideal squad player: a good starter, an even better substitute.
Angel Di María was the player of Madrid’s preseason. He has a new contract that is more appropriate for a player of his importance to the squad, and he has sparkled in every game he has played. He had no tournament this summer, looks sharp and well-rested, and is apparently completely healed up from his injury. We have one of the best right-wingers in the world who throughout this preseason did not play a single disappointing minute.
One thing of note: his on-the-pitch relationship with Gonzalo Higuain is extremely good. This was noticeable as early as September 2010, but injuries to both players over the course of the past two seasons has meant that we have seen less of the two of them playing together than we might have otherwise. Madridistas can expect great things from this pairing up front.
Karim Benzema had a disappointing tournament as the front man for an unmanageable national team with serious locker-room issues. He certainly didn’t play badly, but he struggled and was lacking a creator who could help him out up front. France were never expected to make the final and lost to the tournament winners so that may be some consolation. Benzema also does not seem to have been responsible for the locker room tension that plagued the team.
The Frenchman has been good, not brilliant, during the preseason. His goal against Celtic was a wonderful example of his automatic understanding with Mesut Özil and his own scoring threat – perfect first touch, and plenty of confidence to go for goal rather than looking for a pass. He will probably have another very good season at Madrid, though Mourinho’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation means he will be fighting for his starting place with Higuain.
Gonzalo Higuain is in talks to improve his contract at Madrid after much speculation he might leave for Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain. Thankfully, from the point of view of the fans who sang Pipita quedate during the presentation of the Championship trophy at the Santiago Bernabéu, he has decided to do just that.
He had no tournament this summer and has benefited from the extra few preseason games he and Ángel di María played together. He’ll have to contest for a starting position this season with Karim Benzema. He looks fit, hungry and ready to go.
Jese, Álvaro Morata and José Ignacio Fernández ("Nacho") played well this preseason. They are the three players we can expect Mourinho will call upon this coming season when the squad is short through injury.
Jese is an excellent goal-scoring threat, Morata looks very sharp and creative and played well against LA Galaxy, while Nacho has played well in two different positions.
They will have their work cut out for them next season making sure that their team remain in the second division, but they are obviously more than ready to help out the first team as required.
José Mourinho has gained weight, he tells us, "from eating all this football." Another interview has him anticipating a move to the MLS ("for when I’m old") or his national team ("also when I’m old") but he seems content and happy at Madrid. Asked specifically about Madrid as a project, he agreed, which suggests he is not looking for a new challenge should Madrid be so fortunate as the win the Champions League.
More gems: "The numbers reached this past season will not be reached this season. 100 points and 121 goals are records that should stand for some time."
Also: "The fans must be patient. We are sure to win the Champions League soon."
He has a uniquely talented and contented squad at his disposal.
A Prospective Line-up Against Valencia
The first leg of the Super Cup next week is important, but nothing to winning the league, and three points could be vital. As such, I would expect Mourinho to field his strongest line-up against Valencia and save what would probably be very minor substitutions for the cup competition.
Valencia are a team who press well, play with pace, and have some threat up front. They have a new coach this season after the departure of Unai Emery.
Madrid are also playing at home at the Santiago Bernabéu and will want to put on a good debut. The game kicks off 3 days after International break, when a team’s rhythm can be affected by the so-called FIFA virus. All this will factor into Mourinho’s decision-making.
When choosing this line-up I have kept something else in mind: I think we can expect to see greater rotation this season. Mourinho’s insistence on keeping his squad intact (allowing only one player to leave and wanting only one midfield reinforcement) all suggest that he wants his starting 11 to be able to rotate more frequently than it has in the past. Madrid’s loss on penalties in the semi-final against Bayern was widely put down to exhaustion. Mourinho will want to avoid that. He wants a squad that is accustomed to playing with one another, that has had two solid years of training under him, and that is flexible.
This is also suggested by Mourinho’s preseason tactics : the many combinations in the back four, the determination to give Benzema and Higuain nearly equal time, and the resting of key man Xabi Alonso for a couple of the matches to give Granero and Lass Diarra spins in midfield, for example.
As such, one should not consider this line-up to be one that would be suggested for every game. Against teams of different strength, or away games, or rubber matches, or early cup matches, some minor or major alteration could be appropriate.
Have another line-up in mind? Let us know!