Florentino Pérez is a man on a mission. The corruption and mismanagement of Real Madrid by his predecessor, Ramón Caderón, left the club in a sorry state. A lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful media-war/flirtation with Cristiano Ronaldo coupled with the loss of Robinho to newly rich Manchester City last summer left Madrid without depth. No striker was signed as then-coach Bernd Schuster had requested, and Rafael Van Der Vaart, although very talented, did not fit into Madrid’s style. The effects were felt quickly—sloppy play and lack of results in the league led to Schuster’s resignation early in December. His replacement, Juande Ramos, did a decent job of righting some wrongs, but the drubbing at the hands of Liverpool in the Champions League and the unspeakable result in El Superclásico made it clear: this Madrid was not going to have to focus on next season.
In one of his first press conferences after winning the Real Madrid presidency for the second time, Florentino Pérez stated, “We have to do the work of three off-seasons in one this year,” and he wasn’t kidding. The day he assumed the presidency he announced that Manuel Pellegrini would be given the key to the Casa Blanca, and a mere seven days later he announced the first of many signings this summer: Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite—Kaka’.
In signing the Brazilian, Pérez granted the wishes of millions of Madridistas. They had been promised Kaka’ in 2007 by Ramón Calderón, a promise that he, unsurprisingly, did not deliver on. Kaka’ brings the vision and creativity that Madrid has lacked since the departures of Fernando Redondo and, more recently, the great Zinedine Zidane.
Pérez was nowhere near done, and he wasted no time in completing the most expensive transfer professional football has ever seen. Three days and 94 million Euros (approximately $132.4M) later, Cristiano Ronaldo became the newest addition to what the Spanish media dubbed the “FlorenTeam.” Again, Pérez had delivered where Calderón failed.
Florentino closed out an eventful month with his first Spanish acquisition, Raúl Albiól. The signing of the promising center back strengthens and adds depth to a defense that was suspect at best last season, and fulfills one of Pérez’s campaign promises: bring the best Spanish talent to the capital.
To kickoff July, Pérez announced the capture of Europe’s most promising forward—Karim Benzema. Although courted by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and defending European champions Barcelona, Benzema fulfilled his childhood dream by switching to the Bernabéu.
To finish off his summer spending spree, Pérez brought in a handful of Spaniards. Álvaro Arbeloa and Esteban Granero, both products of the Cantera, or youth system, were brought back for around 4M each from Liverpool and Getafe, respectively. The biggest name, however, was Xabi Alonso. The deep-lying playmaker returns to Spain after his finest season across the Channel with Liverpool and has been tipped to be the mastermind behind Madrid’s attacks this season.
Pérez did well to not let go of any key players in rebuilding the squad. So far, the biggest name in the “Loss” column has to be Fabio Cannavaro, who returned to his former club, Juventus, when his contract expired at the end of last season. Julien Faubert returned to West Ham after an uneventful loan, while Javier Saviola and Javi García, two players who were not likely to get much playing time this season, were sold to Portuguese capital side Benfica. Cantera products Jordi Codina and Dani Parejo moved a few miles south to Getafe, the former on a free transfer and the latter in a 3M deal that includes the buy-back clause that Madrid always seems to slip into contracts involving the sale of Cantera products. Left back Gabriel Heinze returned to France, where he kicked off his European career, with Marseille. The unsettled Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was sold to AC Milan at a cut-price 15M.
Club legend Michel Salgado’s Blanco years ended after a mutual agreement between club and player to cancel his contract. He leaves Madrid after ten years of dedicated service in the white shirt, and looks likely to join Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League on a two-year deal.
Promising midfielder Rubén De La Red missed the majority of the 2008-2009 season after collapsing on the pitch during a Copa del Rey clash against Real Union in Irún, De La Red underwent numerous tests in an attempt to find a cure to his condition. Sadly, since the tests returned inconclusive and no guarantee can be made in regards to his safety, De La Red and the club have confirmed that he will not play this season. Tests will be run every two months to check on his condition, and he is likely to remain with the club in a Youth Coach role.
Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Miguel Torres, Álvaro Negredo, and Ezequiel Garay have all been tipped to leave the club before the beginning of the season. Arsenal are the latest club to have been linked to Van Der Vaart, as Pellegrini has confirmed that the Dutchman does not fit into his plans for next season. José Mourinho’s Internazionale seem to be on the verge of signing Sneijder for a reported 20M, however the Dutch maestro made a case for staying at the Bernabéu this season with a fine performance against Real Sociedad in the preseason which he capped with a spectacular trademark free-kick goal. Torres, Garay, and Negredo have all been linked to a Zaragoza side that is returning to the top flight, with the latter also receiving interest from Premiership side Hull City.
Pellegrini Under Pressure
Huge spending comes with huge expectations, and no man feels the pressure more than manager Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean is expected to lead this talented (and very expensive) side to domestic and European titles—anything less will be considered failure. In preseason matches, Pellegrini seems to have found an effective formation that incorporates all of the newest signings in this attacking 4-2-3-1. Here is a possible starting lineup:
Sergio Ramos Raúl Albiól Pepe Drenthe
Cristiano Ronaldo Kaka’ Granero/Raúl/Robben
Lass Diarra is likely to be the only true defensive midfielder, while Xabi Alonso will probably be given more freedom to create and join in attacks, à la Fernando Redondo. Pellegrini wants his line of attacking midfielders behind the striker to be constantly in motion—that is, the players on the wings are expected to float into the middle and even switch sides when building an attack. This lack of true wingers means that the outside backs will be expected to provide width during an attack.
Throughout preseason, however, Pellegrini has switched formations at halftime, bringing on Higuaín and Robben and opting for a more traditional 4-4-2:
Sergio Ramos Raúl Albiól Pepe Drenthe
Cristiano Ronaldo/Granero Lass Xabi Alonso/Granero/Kaka’ Robben
Who to Watch
- Manuel Pellegrini – As mentioned above, the Chilean is under huge pressure to bring home trophies. He also has the potentially troublesome duty of keeping the locker room in check and not letting egos divide the team. It will also be interesting to see how he manages veterans Raúl and Guti. Both are past their prime and the roster is rife with replacements for either, however keeping them happy in a part-time role at the club has proven to be an impossible task for managers thus far. Any minor slips this season and Pellegrini could find himself on the job market.
- Cristiano Ronaldo – The Portuguese winger has claimed that he will prove his worth this season—can he live up to his enormous price tag? How will he transition from the fast and furious Premier League to the slower, more technical Liga BBVA?
- Kaka’ – Another player who will have to prove his worth. Some say Madrid overpaid for his services, as they consider he is past his prime. Will he replicate his form from the 2006-2007 Champions League and lead Madrid to their 10th European Crown?
- Karim Benzema – Although a proven goalscorer in Ligue 1, many doubt his ability to make it in one of the “Big Three” leagues. The French international will be expected to play a major offensive role this season, and it will be interesting to see just how patient the Bernabéu Faithful will be with him if he needs to develop.
Surprise of the Season: Esteban Granero
The former Canterano quietly turned into a stellar playmaker during his years in the Madrid suburb of Getafe, where he led the small club to a UEFA Cup semi-final. Pellegrini has called his number various times this preseason and he has impressed with his work rate, vision, and creativity in the midfield. Look for him to be the surprise contender for a starting spot in this star-studded lineup.
Dates to Remember
August 30 – Real Madrid-Deportivo, first League match.
September 15/16 – Champions League Matchday 1.
November 7/8, March 27/28 – Atlético-Real Madrid, El derby Madrileño.
November 28/29, April 10/11 – Barcelona-Real Madrid, El superclásico (required watching for any and all football fans).
May 16 – Málaga-Real Madrid, last League match.
May 22 – Champions League Final, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu .