Manchester United pre-season: Real Madrid’s amazing array of riches
The Champions League winners have compiled another giddying parade of galacticos that will be the envy of Manchester United who they play tonight
“Now we play Real Madrid and it is nice to play against such teams, so you can show you are at least equal,” said the Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal yesterday.
However, the options available to the Spanish side prove that today’s game in Michigan is really not a meeting of comparable squads.
A predicted 109,000 crowd will be a record for a football game in the United States and the biggest to watch United since 120,000 saw their European Cup semi-final at the Bernabeu in 1957.
Van Gaal has complained of a preponderance of No 10s in his inheritance, giving his squad an imbalance, but the Real squad which trained yesterday in the heat of the Michigan Stadium, appropriately known as the “Big House”, was giddying to behold. The Nos 7 to 11 in the newly constituted Galacticos read: Cristiano Ronaldo, £24m new signing Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema, £71m new signing James Rodriquez and Gareth Bale.
While Kroos was a player Van Gaal categorically did not want at United, who had undertaken the due diligence work because of David Moyes’ enthusiasm for him, the juggling needed by Carlo Ancelotti is the greater of the two experienced managers by some distance.
The Real Madrid we see will line up as a 4-2-3-1, if the prevailing view of supporters reflects the Italian’s. That would have Benzema in the attacking role, with Bale, James and Ronaldo in the second line, ahead of Kroos and Luka Modric back in midfield. That plays to the strength of James – best deployed as a No 10. It also leaves a number of substantial players – Xabi Alonso, Angel Di Maria, Isco and Sami Khedira – struggling to play.
The Argentine Di Maria is the most extraordinary omission, considering his contribution to the club’s fabled European Cup decima last season, and Ancelotti is understood to be resigned to losing him. The Italian has put up with a lot from interfering presidents over the years – at Milan he let Silvio Berlusconi sit in on his team talk before the 2003 Champions League final against Juventus – but it will hurt him to have to let Di Maria go.
President Florentino Perez’s desire to brush away remnants of the Jose Mourinho era has something to do with Di Maria’s exile, but there is also a feeling that the less-than-photogenic El Fideo (The Noodle), as they call him, does not shift shirts. Manchester United are interested by Di Maria’s availability, though, they think he will go to Paris Saint-Germain.
Of the other unloved stars, Ancelotti will endeavour to play Alonso as and when he can, Khedira may wait for a year and run his contract down, while the 22-year-old Isco’s future looks uncertain. Perhaps he should have gone from Malaga to Manchester City with Manuel Pellegrini when he had the chance last summer.
It is an incredible array of talent and illustrates the divide which has to be bridged by United – a club whose transfer record is still £37.1m, who have struggled to get the established superstars of European football through the door and whose owners have this week announced that they are undertaking another share issue to raise $150 million (£89m) for themselves.
Meanwhile, the Spanish media is absorbed by the lack of out-and-out No 9s at the Bernabeu, Benzema aside. Agent Jorge Mendes, who has delivered Rodriquez, is now trying to get Radamel Falcao in from Monaco. The arrival of Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been delayed until the side can offload either Diego Lopez or Iker Casillas.
Real can afford to do all of this and still comply with Financial Fair Play because of their incredible earning power. They topped the Deloitte Football League for a ninth consecutive season in January with total revenue of €518.9m (£413.9m.). They and Barcelona share the stranglehold on La Liga TV rights, unlike the more equitable English division. They move players on to raise cash for new ones and often push for transfer fee payments in instalments. The amortisation of transfer fees over the length of a player’s contract also makes transfer outlay less significant than it looks.
The Spanish club are aggressively seeking a cut in United’s healthy global income, too. They have been banging the commercial drum hard here in the United States these past two weeks, with La Liga’s president Javier Tebas in a supporting role. Tebas, in California when United arrived to play LA Galaxy last week, has been on a mission to bridge the financial gap between the Premier League and his own division by targeting the US and Asia.
He didn’t seem entirely to be joking when he declared, in the context of Luis Suarez following Bale from England to Spain: “We are not going to stop. We want the best 500 players.”
The USA’s huge Hispanic population makes it a key market for both club and league. Real’s ambition was checked yesterday when a Spanish court temporarily stopped the club’s plans to remodel the Bernabeu in response to the concerns of an environmental group. The Madrid city government had granted permission for the expansion, though the European Union is investigating the legality of a property swap between club and government. It has also been examining for a year whether Real, Barcelona and five other Spanish clubs received illegal state aid, as The Independent has revealed.
But the development did not look like a substantial impediment to the club. There is a sense that this group of galacticos have been more intelligently assembled than that put together by Perez and then sporting director Jorge Valdano in 2003 – the high tide mark of the club’s first galatico era. Then, Real bought players at top dollar simply because that gave them an aura. Perez passed up a £7m 21-year-old Sao Paulo player called Kaka and hired him for £40m four years later.
The balance of the squad was also subsidiary to the galaxy of stars. David Beckham and Luis Figo were masters of the same position and because there was no holding midfielder among the central four of Beckham, Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Guti, Beckham ended up playing in central midfield. When Perez returned in 2009 the club signed holding midfielders – Alonso and Modric – as well as Ronaldo, Benzema and Kaka.
As he prepared to face United, Bale talked of a club with “more hunger than ever” as they bid to retain the Champions League and win six trophies, including the Super Cup at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium in 10 days.
“It was a massive change for me last year but in time I have become very comfortable here,” Bale said. “Now I want to improve in every aspect.”
Ancelotti’s tactical options include a 4-4-2, with Rodriquez at the top and Alonso at the base of a midfield diamond and Modric and Kroos either side, delivering Bale and Ronaldo up front at the expense of Benzema. He will struggle to keep his stars happy, while United still struggle to sign any. Madrid look like a side in a vastly superior space.
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