As Real Madrid's plane touched down in Barajas a couple of days ago I felt a weird mix of relief and disappointment: my favorite team had come to my home country and I didn't get to watch them play in person (disappointment), but at least no one got injured, they won all their games, and they got a lot of publicity in the American media (2/3 games on ESPN--not bad at all!).
I think my disappointment has really been compounded by the fact that I haven't gotten to see my favorite summer signing, the young German deep-lying playmaker Nuri Sahin in action yet. I could really care less about Hamit Altintop (I know exactly what he does), but I've only seen highlight reels and small parts of a few of Sahin's games, and don't know what exactly to expect from the kid. Will he be Xabi Alonso's long-term replacement? Or will that title fall to Esteban Granero (who continued to impress during the preseason)? Is he actually more in the mold of Mesut Özil (and therefore incompatible with him), or will they understand each other perfectly?
Sahin's absence notwithstanding, Madrid's gira norteamericana has been really informative--but maybe not in terms of the immediate (read: this coming season) makeup of the starting 11. People like to make generalizations about who will be starters, benchwarmers, under-performers, and difference-makers based on these few games, and while the preseason can help (or hurt) a player's cause, the player's standing will ultimately be decided by how he plays when the season starts.
Take the example of Sergio Canales last year. The kid lit it up during the preseason (really, he was a huge sensation), and even started Madrid's first game (at Mallorca, if I remember correctly). But when the ball actually started moving in that first game he looked lost, overmatched, timid and scared. And he barely played another meaningful minute. So take preseason performances at face value: don't make the mistake that so many of us did last year when we (prematurely) labeled him the next great Spanish center midfielder. He might still be that player--just not yet.
So what can we take away from Madrid's stint in the States?
A few things:
- Coentrão is awesome. He's great, and he'll be a huge help to this team as the season progresses. The fact that he played so many different positions so well means that he will get minutes no matter who sits--he can spell anyone (almost), and Mourinho loves that. And his hair? Almost as awesome as his play.
- Raphaël Varane has serious potential, but still needs a lot of work. He looked composed on defense, unafraid of the moment, and seemed like a real powerhouse in the air. Unfortunately, he wasn't really tested at the highest level: but that's OK. Give this kid a couple of years under Mourinho and he could blossom into a serious force at the back for los blancos.
- Callejón will give di María a fight for that left wing position. I'm not saying he'll win it. But he'll definitely make it hard on Mourinho. Let's not forget, though, that di María was an absolute sensation last year, and still has a lot of growing to do himself--I'm not ready to anoint Callejón as di María's successor, but I'll give him this: he has played out of his mind these last few games.
- Jesé Rodríguez needs time. And we might not be able to give it to him. He's a good player, with a lot of potential, who sees the field well and has incredible physical ability. But that's all right now: he looked overmatched and was really out of sorts in every single game. If Madrid can give him time, he might turn into something.
- Karim Benzema might be exactly what this team needs. Though his play has been suspect as a forward, he has been incredible in his capacity as a "false 9," or striker that drops back into an attacking midfield role. He shows guile and willingness to sacrifice on defense, and an acute offensive instinct that has resulted in some absolutely brilliant goals (for other people). Oh, and his header off that Coentrão cross in the Galaxy game was pretty nice, too.
- That being said, Madrid might actually need a player to be a real 9. If Benzema can't (I'm really not convinced of this, by the way, and will continue to defend the Frenchman with my dying breath), then there are some options, including Higuaín (but he works better as a false 9 also), and Alvaro Morata, our 18-year-old canterano who is more in the Ruud van Nistelrooy mold of a true 9. Of course, Adebayor is still on the market.
- I'm not sure if Neymar is the answer to Madrid's "troubles" on offense because I'm not sure that Madrid has any troubles on offense. He might be a great player, and could add a really cool element to the team (especially for the future), but he doesn't strike me, well, as a striker. Oh, and if his agent opens his mouth again, I swear on my mother, I'm going to destroy something. It'll be small. Probably like a phone. But it will cease to exist.
Here's an official video from RealMadrid.com that essentially sums up exactly what I just wrote but with a british accent and pleasant moving pictures: