Sizing up what Madrid needs and can offer

Posted by Rob Train

Carlo Ancelotti's first game in charge of Real Madrid was never destined to offer any huge clues as to the Italian's mindset before the rigors of a full season begin.

The new coach said as much ahead of the curious friendly matchup Sunday in England between the nine-time European champion and Bournemouth, a club that won promotion to the second tier of English football last season.

After a week of light training, and with the club's Spanish internationals given a few extra days after the Confederations Cup, it provided Ancelotti with a chance to run the rule over some new signings and a few canteranos, as well as the state of play with the team's established first-teamers.

-Napoli confirm talks with Higuain
-Ancelotti denies Higuain transfer


What the Italian will have gleaned from the 6-0 victory is that Isco is ready to slot straight in, Cristiano Ronaldo is in the sort of shape that suggests he didn't have much of a holiday at all, and the club has some bright talent currently slogging away for Castilla. None of the visiting team besides Dani Carvajal and Nacho got more than 45 minutes at Dean Court, and it's fair to say that Carvajal (the right back reacquired from Bayer Leverkusen), Isco, Casemiro, and Gonzalo Higuain stood out from the crowd of substitutions, with Ronaldo doing what everybody who hasn't lived in the proverbial cave for the past four seasons expects him to do: a few flicks and tricks for the capacity crowd and a brace in a thoroughly professional performance.

After the game, Ancelotti reiterated something he had said before the team set off for the English riviera: "I am happy with the squad and I don't want to talk about other players out of respect for those who are here."

Before leaving Madrid, the Italian said he did not see why Real Madrid should make any more signings in the summer window. On paper, as things stand, it's hard to argue with that sentiment. Young talent and older heads combined well to see off the notional challenge of Bournemouth, but upcoming games against Lyon and PSG will provide a sterner examination of the state of Real's resources as they stand.

So here's a look at Madrid's needs from back to front and what they will probably get, if anything:

Goalkeepers: Diego Lopez started in Bournemouth and Iker Casillas showed at the Confederations Cup that his imposed exile has not blunted his reflexes. It is extremely likely that Ancelotti will reinstate the club captain between the sticks in the new season and, in Lopez, has a more than able deputy who expected plenty of bench time when he signed from Sevilla anyway.

The only incognito is Antonio Adan. Jesus Fernandez was preferred to the former third-string keeper on Sunday, and it would appear that the youngster's time at Real is drawing to a close.

Whether or not Real will sanction his sale or a loan deal is open to question, but Fernandez showed enough wile in the final league game of last season against Osasuna to suggest Jose Mourinho's intended snub to Casillas actually stitched up Adan instead, who hardly rose to the occasion when used as a pawn in the Portuguese's power games in January and has clearly done little to convince Ancelotti of his continued worth. Apparently Rayo are interested, which should be fairly depressing for Adan, with all due respect to Rayo, of course.

Defense: This is really the area where it is hard to believe Real will not seek to bolster its options before the season starts. Raul Albiol, a full Spanish international lest we forget, has joined Rafa Benitez's Napoli revolution, Ricardo Carvalho has been farmed out to nouveau riche Monaco, and Pepe is a fairly unlikely 22-million-euro target for Manchester City, a rumor that refuses to go away, while utility man Michael Essien has returned to Chelsea.

Should Manuel Pellegrini succeed in his pursuit of Pepe, the 30-year-old Portugal defender, Real will be very light at center-half. Nacho nominally is a central defender and was deployed there against Bournemouth, but spent most of his Castilla career at left back. There is little else in reserve should Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane suffer an injury or lengthy suspension.

Realistically, if City do firm up on their offer for Pepe, and manage to wring anything upward of 15 million for him, Real should take the Manchester club's arm off. He's no spring chicken after all and will likely not be first choice next season. And there's no reason to break the bank for a replacement, with solid defenders retailing at somewhere around that price tag. Real have been linked with Big Geoff Kondogbia, who can play across the back line as well as in defensive midfield, but the Bernabeu's current stock of anchormen suggest the France under-20 international will not be picked up.

A more modest move for the likes of Guilherme Siqueira to plug any gaps at left back -- Fabio Coentrao's future remains unclear despite Ancelotti claiming he is happy with the Portuguese -- to allow Nacho to be bedded in the center makes sense in the long term. Meanwhile, a cut price deal for Wellington would fill a pair of boots in the position, as would Inigo Martinez, but going back to Malaga and La Real, respectively, would be less than diplomatic.

A more amenable solution might be to ask City for one of Joleon Lescott or Micah Richards in part of an exchange if they are serious about Pepe. An altogether cheekier solution would be to ask for Matija Nastasic or the versatile Pablo Zabaleta, who can play across the back four should Coentrao depart.

Midfield: In the middle it really appears that Real is blessed. The aging Xabi Alonso can't go on forever but that is precisely the reason Asier Illarramendi was signed. Sami Khedira is in his prime and Casemiro offers options in the engine room as well.

Further upfield, a right winger in the shape of Jose Callejon has left, also answering the siren call of Rafa Benitez in Naples. Angel di Maria is the natural choice on that flank if, as seems logical, Isco fills the slot behind the striker and Mesut Ozil is comfortable on the right. Interest in the Argentine winger di Maria has waned and, barring a late offer, he will be available when Real lines up against Betis in the first game of the season Aug. 17.

Ben Stansall/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo scored twice in the rout of Bournemouth.

The left is hardly an issue, with Ronaldo rarely missing a game. Di Maria can also shift to the far flank if needed, and Jese Rodriguez, who scored five goals in five games at the under-20 World Cup, is a decent backup for the less-glamorous fixtures if needed.

Only if Manchester United's increasingly desperate search for midfield reinforcement alights on Luka Modric should Real need to consider a replacement, although Ancelotti seems determined to give Kaka a final chance to shine in a Real shirt in any case. Anybody who writes off the Brazilian in a season leading to a shot at lifting the World Cup in his homeland shouldn't be counting on his consummate failure to rise to whatever occasions he is afforded.

Forwards: The second great head-scratcher of the off-season: Gonzalo Higuain told Spanish television after the Osasuna game that he had played his last game for the club, and it may well be that he has, in competitive terms at least. But who is there available that is a better option than the Argentine at the moment? It took Higuain one touch to score against Bournemouth, a statistic that is borne out by his ability to come off the bench for Real and hit the target with ruthless efficiency. I wrote recently that Higuain's stats are among the best in the world in terms of shots-to-goals ratio and chance conversion. Real's decision to up the asking price for the forward to 35 million euros is reasonable in lieu of his status as an Argentina first-choicer.

But if he doesn't want to play for Real, why block his exit? Karim Benzema's scoring form last season hardly warranted his status under Mourinho -- although his assist rate deserves a mention, 12 in the league alone -- and the Spanish press, even the pro-Madrid section, was concurrent in agreeing he had a stinker on Sunday.

Benzema is what could charitably be described as a slow starter. But there has been absolutely no mention of his departure while Higuain is reportedly on the verge of joining half the Real squad at Napoli.

There is little question that a front line of Benzema and Alvaro Morata should strike considerable fear into the stomachs of madridistas, despite the tendency for Ronaldo to pick up the goalscoring tab. It seems equally unpalatable that Higuain, a loyal, uncomplaining servant who wore the captain's armband in Bournemouth as Real's senior player -- only Casillas, Ramos and Marcelo have more time on the Bernabeu clock -- should be the subject of an unseemly exit.

"I think that now we have to speak about Higuain as a Real Madrid player. He is a fantastic player and a fantastic striker who took one minute to score tonight," Ancelotti said on Sunday. "I spoke to him this week. He is a Real Madrid player and until we have news we have to consider him as a Real Madrid player, and I would like him to stay with us."

Hardly a ringing endorsement and a real worry for Real fans. Expect some serious mierda to hit the fan if the Argentinean hitman is snapped up by Arsenal, Napoli or any other suitor with the clock running down. That was essentially what caused Liverpool to stump up 35 million euros for Andy Carroll on deadline day. An alternative needs to be buttered up just in case, and Brendan Rodgers has said that Luis Suarez was in "excellent spirits" on his return to Anfield.



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