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Real Madrid, Neymar, and the Art of Having and Eating Cake

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To "have one's cake and eat it too" is, according to Wikipedia (yeah, I wikipedia'd it--you got a problem with that?) an idiomatic English proverb--which is why it might not make tons of sense to our hundreds of millions of non-native English-speaking readers--that means, loosely, "having or wanting more than one can handle or deserve, or trying to have two incompatible things."

There is a very specific art to having and eating cake--so to speak--when it comes to soccer: having two or more high-calibre players at the same position without any in-fighting or disagreements perfectly underscores this art of balance. One false move and the whole ship falls over (oh, man more metaphor mixing? What bad writing!): a player becomes angry, jealous, and instead of channeling that into productive on-field play, he lashes out in the locker room or to the press. Suddenly, the team is in chaos: you've lost your cake.

If this is an art, then Real Madrid is Michelangelo (and Barcelona, United, Chelsea, etc. are Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso...). Los blancos (and big teams generally) epitomize the notion of having and eating cake: just look at their most recent acquisition, Fabio Coentrão. He plays the same position as one of Madrid's brightest stars (Marcelo). But what is Madrid doing? Both using the position battle to motivate Marcelo and Coentrão to give every practice their all, and finding innovative ways to make sure both players get playing time (Coentrão as part of a center midfield trivot with Alonso and Sahin? Cool!). They're balancing the ship (you know, from the previous metaphor).

And that's what Mourinho (and Florentino and co.) will do if/when los merengues acquire Neymar--and I'll talk about all your objections after the jump (seriously, I know what you're thinking).

So, here's the deal. Even Michelangelo can make mistakes. But he corrected them and learned from them. And that's what great artists do. And Madrid has learned from past mistakes, especially those made during Florentino's first term. The galáctico era was not a failure--they won what, two Champions Leagues and three Liga's? But it was a period of marked excess, of trying (and failing) to stuff all the cake into one mouth at the same time. It was unsustainable (and kind of gross, to go back to the cake metaphor).

The key is to know what subtle strokes to make and not make: in this example, acquiring Neymar needs to be accompanied by a set of actions that will quell his ego, and make him accept a team-first mentality (if he doesn't already have that). Those are two things Mourinho does very, very well.

But you can have your cake and eat it too. The first few years of the galáctico era were a wonderful example of that. But you need to know when to slow down, how to balance: Madrid had that type of person--the guy who knows how to balance everyone, everything--in Vicente del Bosque. And they have that type again in Mourinho. (And, I'd argue, they had that type--albeit briefly--in Fabio Capello in 2006-2007).

So, this new Madrid will be very deep, and will have various world class players competing at every single position (except keeper, I guess). Neymar will compete with di María, Özil, Sahin, Higuaín, Benzema and Kaká for playing time; Coentrão will compete with Marcelo, Pepe, Ramos, Carvalho, Albiol, and even Xabi Alonso. And guess what: I actually have no doubt that Mourinho will be able to balance the ship, to have his cake and eat it too. Because that's what he has done his whole career (hate him or love him, you've got to give him this: his players have an uncommon devotion to the man).

So enjoy tomorrow's friendly against the LA Galaxy with this in mind. We'll be doing an open-thread of the match, and before that a very special Managing Madrid podcast with none other than renowned Chelsea expert and SBN's own Graham MacAree of We Ain't Got No History fame.

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