Stick or twist? Madrid face attacking dilemma

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Stick or twist? That's the dilemma facing Real Madrid in light of Gonzalo Higuain's reported move to Napoli, a move that is expected to be completed in the coming days.

Do Madrid stick with what they've got in attack? Karim Benzema as the leading frontman, hot prospects Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez as backup and Cristiano Ronaldo smashing in the goals on a weekly basis? Or do they twist -- replace the departing Higuain with a tried-and-tested striker to partner, or complement, Benzema -- a like for like?

The sounds coming out of the Bernabeu are thus far mixed. Los Blancos are more eager than ever, seemingly, to give youth a chance. Morata and Rodriguez both shone on the international stage over the summer and look set for bright futures. On the other hand, Florentino Perez has yet to make one of his trademark 'Galactico' signings. Though the summer arrivals of Isco, Asier Illarramendi and Daniel Carvajal were far from cheap, they are not Gareth Bale -- the club's number one target.

-Spurs: Bale not leaving
-Higuain passes Napoli medical

Which way the scales are going to tip are so far unknown, but when Higuain's move to Naples is finally signed, sealed and delivered, as expected, Madrid will be a striker light compared to last season, and a pretty good striker light, too. All this when Barcelona have bolstered their attacking options with one of the best players in the world in Neymar.

When the rotation of Benzema and Higuain clicked, it was lethal. Madrid's title-winning campaign of 2011-12 saw the pair link up superbly and help fire Los Blancos to La Liga. When one was out of the team, the other was firing the goals in. The rotation worked, the pair remained extremely sharp throughout the season and the competition spurred them on.

It was a shame that attacking partnership could not continue to flourish last season, but that's for another day. The pair scored 43 league goals in 2011-12, Benzema 21 and Higuain 22. It may not have even equalled the 46 by Ronaldo, but then again few do.

Higuain, although perhaps not reaching the ultimate heights some had hoped for when he arrived at the Bernabeu, was not only a good footballer but a superb finisher. He was in the right place at the right time, and his shooting was clinical. His presence, undoubtedly, will be missed in the Madrid squad and there will be a gap to fill. Goals will be needed.

But who will Carlo Ancelotti trust to fill it? Morata and Rodriguez? Or will he look for Perez to get the chequebook out one more time this summer for a player such as Luis Suarez, a player who has made no secret of his desire to leave English Premier League club Liverpool for pastures new, preferably Madrid. Bale, of course, is the other option that Los Blancos are seemingly refusing to give up on until the transfer window slams shut.

Although Suarez comes with baggage, and plenty of it, his qualities cannot be denied. He was in the running for the Premier League's Player of the Year last season despite being banned for eight matches for making racist remarks to Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and another 10 for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic. He scored regularly for a Liverpool side that was never in the running for the Champions League places. They were pretty good goals, too.

Liverpool say the Uruguayan is still firmly in their plans but reports in England suggest they will sell if they receive an offer of around £50 million. That's £10 million more than Arsenal are currently offering for his services, although the Gunners seem to believe there is a clause in Suarez's contract to say he can talk to interested clubs if an offer of above £40 million comes in. Arsene Wenger and Co. gladly extended that offer by a whole £1 to try and do just that.

The £40 million being bandied around for Suarez is, coincidentally, not too far off the near €40 million Madrid are reportedly set to receive from Napoli for Higuain, including add-ons. Good timing then, with the new season edging ever closer. Madrid has done well to make a big profit on a player bought for €12 million, not least because Juventus were on the verge of signing him for €25 million and then Arsenal were the front-runners with a slightly better offer of €27 million. Another €13 million on top of that, from Napoli, will do very nicely.

Though Bale would cost far more than Suarez, Higuain's sale should free up a bit more money to tempt Tottenham for their star man before the close of the transfer window. Reports in Spain suggested a big contract had already been agreed between Madrid and the Welshman, but Tottenham's reply was that they hoped Bale would continue to be a key cog in their team next season. The drama continues.

If Madrid fails in either of those options, the pressure could be on Morata and Rodriguez to come up with the goods next season. Higuain was left out of Wednesday night's squad in the 2-2 friendly draw in Lyon, but Morata has already showcased that he's more than capable of plugging the gap by scoring a goal as Los Blancos came from 2-0 down to draw.

He showed it last season too for Castilla but especially in La Liga, netting a late winner with his first touch at Levante. There was also trust put in the 20-year-old with a starting role in El Clasico, albeit in a much-changed Madrid side with one eye on a coming Champions League game, and he scored four goals as Spain triumphed in the Euro Under-21 Championships. You sense his appearances may increase next season.

Madrid has also put plenty of faith in Rodriguez, who, just as Morata did with the U-21s, excelled in international competition with the Spain U-20s this summer. Despite rumours linking him with a move away from the Bernabeu in search of regular first-team football, Madrid announced their week their 'jewel' had extended his stay at the club by another four years. A promise of more first-team action may have been promised to see the deal through.

The decision to stick or twist in the attacking department will be one of Ancelotti's first big tests as Madrid manager. Madrid may have added well to what was already a superb midfield supply, and also addressed the right-back problem with the return of Daniel Carvajal, but Los Blancos cannot come up short in attack if they are to reclaim La Liga from Barcelona.

Cristiano Ronaldo, fitness permitting, will bag his customary 40-plus goals in the all-white, for that is almost guaranteed. But Madrid cannot rely on their talisman too heavily. Goals will come from elsewhere; Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Isco will all chip in. But Madrid showed last season that it needs to be more of a team and not rely too heavily on goals from their golden boy.


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