A feel-good week in Real Madrid land made for another lovely mailbag with some fresh questions. There's a lot of content to cover during this stretch of the season, and we'll be staying on top of it as best we can. De facto, we're organizing a 'bonus podcast' scheduled in the next couple days to talk about what happened in Rome and give a quick preview of the match in Malaga, so stay tuned for that.
Thanks for all the questions this week folks, and be sure to tweet me your questions for next week as well! As a reminder, I will only be taking questions on Twitter rather than in the comments section, it's much easier for me to filter through that way. I will still read the comments on this site, but in terms of taking official questions - Twitter is the best route.
Here we go.
Hazard, Neymar nd now Griezmann. Who do we really need to replace Ronaldo and what's Bale's problem? @KiyanSo— Ismaeel Trikss (@Trikss22) February 12, 2016
Real Madrid have a heaping stack of talented elite players who could play in Ronaldo's current position, and, it's astonishing that fans are still looking outside the roster for help in that position. Isco's ability to drop and cover the wings while slinging in crosses and arching shots to the far post from the left make him a great candidate to slot in as the left attacking midfielder. Bale can play there too, and that's not a secret.
At this point, it's not worth discussing the three aforementioned players in the question above - not because they're not great players or Florentino won't have an eye on them, but because the replacements for Ronaldo are already in the squad.
Real Madrid have committed to paying Gareth Bale a fortune all the way through to 2019. Keep in mind that, at the time of his signing, he was regarded as Ronaldo's eventual heir - while serving as his sidekick until Ronaldo moves on. That idea hasn't changed, yet. Real Madrid have tremendous confidence in the Welshman - everyone from the board to the coaching staff.
Whether it's Bale or Isco who slides into that position doesn't really matter, as these positions are completely interchangeable throughout 90 minutes of football. I haven't included James as a potential replacement, as he should be shifted to the right wing or the pocket between midfield and attack - essentially as Isco or Bale's replacement.
There should also be room to groom Kovacic. There is no need to sign anyone else for the starting eleven this off-season. Given that Kroos is - after almost two seasons - finally settling into the DM role despite not being a pure defensive midfielder (shameless plug but you might enjoy this: I wrote about Real Madrid's DM position for FourFourTwo yesterday), a line-up with Benzema up top, Bale and James on the wings, and Isco hovering in between should provide nice two-way balance once you add Modric into the mix with the versatile Kovacic rotating in with his ability to play multiple positions.
Kroos is still not the perfect defensive midfielder, but he's improved vastly in that position this season, and if you watch a Real Madrid match focusing solely on Kroos during the course of 90 minutes, you'll understand how his intelligence can mask his inexperience in that deep role. The end of this season will be a good measuring stick of Kroos' capabilities there.
The question about Bale's 'problem' is actually legitimate, even if it's not worded tactfully. As great as Bale has been this season, the Club needs him to play game-in game-out. Let's wait until the end of the season to reassess.
Zidane has cracked open the potential of every single player in the squad, further proof that naturally commanding respect and intrinsically motivating players goes incredibly far. If this question was asked two months ago, the answer would have been dramatically different. Even if Ronaldo sees out the remainder of his contract, there's plenty of minutes to go around for Jese, Isco and James - particularly given the history of suspensions and injuries that Real Madrid typically goes through during the course of a season.
Benitez's obsession with the assiduous Lucas Vasquez has come and gone, giving rise to players like Jese who possess more flair and were desperately seeking confidence. All three of Jese, Isco, and James were undervalued in Rafa's scheme.
Timely quotes from Jese, after his massive goal in Rome:
"I am happy that the coach gives me confidence. Since arriving he has given us all confidence,"
"He is fully behind everyone and that is very important.
"We know each other from two years ago and back then he really helped me. Now I am delighted to have him as a coach. You learn from him as a person and as a coach.
There is still a question though, of how much players like James, Isco, and Jese can tolerate being in the squad if they're not given consistent minutes moving forward. Assuming Ronaldo is in the squad and everyone is healthy, at least two of them will always be on the bench, with Jese the furthest down in the depth chart. The upside of these three players is through the roof, which is another reason to part ways with Ronaldo over the Summer.
Depending on how ambitious Jese becomes - he may want to pull a Morata and move to somewhere where he can grab more playing time - but that's probably still a couple years away, at the very least.
Surprise, by the way, the Ronaldo question will come up again before this mailbag is done.
There is so much discomfort that sits in when reading this question, because it's as real as they come, and Real Madrid's underlying problem since the turn of century has always been the lack of continuity - shuffling coaches at an absurd rate as if they're playing a video game. Florentino will find a problem with every coach he hires, and Rafa, for the ticking time bomb that he was with this team, was completely correct with his comments yesterday.
And a reminder, I wrote about this entire problem back in September, and it's essentially timeless. That's not meant to sound self-righteous, but I do believe the idea behind it is something that is crippling the Club and will continue to be a problem.
Zidane has plenty of room to grow, but it would be a shame to not let him see out at least another year even if it means going through plenty of growing pains along the way. Florentino Perez has a serious opportunity here to win back some fans who are fed up with his year-to-year changes, and if Real Madrid show patience with Zizou - a fantastic motivator of superstars and egos whose tactics and understanding of coaching will surely improve - then there are some fruits to be reaped.
There needs to be some caution with throwing around names of other coaches at this time. It's very difficult to do, since most coaches who are suitable have already coached Real Madrid at some point. I've long been a fan of Del Bosque and Ancelotti - both who who are unrealistic coaching candidates now. Outside of the obvious choices, I've always been a fan of Joachim Low, but again, I don't like talking about other coaches at the moment - I'd rather just enjoy the Zizou train which has been a breath of fresh air.
The latter. The latter every day of the week.
Despite a tumultuous season, Real Madrid has an incredible chance to make a deep run in the Champions League, and, if I'm Zidane, I put extra emphasis on winning the 11th European title. La Liga is a 7-point swing at least - that's assuming Barcelona win their game in hand against Granada. Pulling off the league title this year requires a near perfect second half of the season, including three points at the Camp Nou which shaves the lead to four points, and rose-coloured hopes of Barcelona dropping more points along the way.
It's not out of the realm of possibility to compensate for that 7-point deficit, but the odds of pulling off an incredible Champions League run and hoisting a trophy at the San Siro in May is actually more feasible, given the favorable draw and momentum Real Madrid have in that tournament. Plus, even if Real Madrid have to go through Barcelona and / or Bayern, who's to say they can't swing some away goals and plow through Luis Enrique or Pep Guardiola?
You have to field the strongest 11 possible in the second leg vs Roma. A quick goal from the Italians in the Bernabeu would be enough to make Zidane sweat, and quite frankly, it's not worth the risk. What happened against Schalke last season was nearly the biggest meltdown in Real Madrid history - and that was an even more difficult advantage to lose.
If it comes down to choosing between La Liga or the Champions League when it comes to resting players, you have to chose the former. Plus, if Real Madrid has an insurmountable lead by half-time, then Zidane can start pulling players against Roma.
As I said on this week's podcast, Zidane should put 'all his eggs in the Champions League basket'.
For right or wrong, my opinion on Ronaldo's departure won't change. Even if he scores a hat-trick in every match from now until May, this is the Summer to part ways with him. In what has become a recurring trend in these mailbags, I will re-post my answer to the Ronaldo departure question from a previous week:
In the event of an inevitable Ronaldo departure, others will rise in his place. I'm going to have some fun with this question and answer it quite literally by ways of how I would personally handle the situation, rather than what I think the Club will do. The first thing to get out of the way is that it's pretty well impossible to rotate Ronaldo once he's in the squad. He has the type of persona about him that, if he's in the team, he has to play. It's the same kind of presence that Raul or Casillas demanded even if they don't directly say it, and generally you need to part with these players on the early side of their decline.
In what World is James Rodriguez a squad player and not a starter? James is an ace. The average age of James - Bale - Isco is 24, and that's a tantalizing core to build your team around. I don't see Ronaldo as a part of this core moving forward, and, as I've mentioned several times before, it by no means indicates that the Portuguese legend is devalued or under-appreciated.
Ronaldo has been efficient enough to be on his own historical plane of greatness, but naturally, he has declined, and generally, the more you rely on athleticism as a player, the sooner you will regress as a footballer. There is no shame in admitting the Club will be better off to cut ties with Ronaldo now and move him in the Summer, because quite frankly, the idea of a James - Bale - Isco trio binding the midfield and attack for the next few years is too good to pass up, and Bale could generally develop into the team's alpha-dog which is a position he should thrive in.
At the end of the season, I'd have a frank conversation with Ronaldo to say 'we appreciate everything you've done for us, and this is the direction we are headed in'. Then hold a massive tribute for him and pack the Bernabeu. Send him off with a clear conscience and start building your team for the future.
I've merged these two questions because, quite frankly, I wouldn't even consider Lucas Vasquez unless there were absolutely no other options available, and Kovacic can be used as a Bale replacement, which I'll elaborate on below.
Rafa Benitez gambled a lot by insisting on putting Vasquez so high in the pecking order. To be completely fair, after a really shaky start where Vasquez looked completely out of place in a team with stars - struggling with basic things like controlling a ball, taking a first touch, and making simple passes rather than dribbling into a cluster of players - Vasquez improved, started making better decisions, and turned into a pretty nice diligent workhorse who was reliable in tracking back and covering for his full-backs.
But those traits alone aren't enough to earn you consistent minutes in a Club like Real Madrid, and there needs to be more room for creative two-way players like Kovacic. The Croatian's biggest asset is his versatility and ability to play comfortably in multiple positions. He's the epitome of a box-to-box midfielder, and Zidane has the luxury of slotting in Kovacic for an injured Bale while shuffling Isco, James, or Jese to the right.
Kovacic should definitely start more matches, and I would use those condensed La Liga games that are tossed in-and-around the Champions League schedule to give Kova more burn.
My pajamas, which I've been rocking for a good three years, hold sweat on a hot Summer night much better than those grey monstrosities. But I'm so done complaining about them. It seems so futile.
Here are the worst kits I can remember:
I went through a phase where I was buying at least one kit from every season, and the ones above (from 03-04, I believe) made me shudder. I hated the collar and the way they fit around the waist.
My two favorites of all-time are these ones below, the second of which we'll never see again in today's marketing driven age - it was from the centenary season where no sponsors made their way on to the beautiful white shirt.