Backups step up in St. Louis

Posted by Rob Train

Carlo Ancelotti should be a happy man after Real Madrid's final game of preseason. The Italian could even allow himself to wet his lips a little at the prospect of the year to come after an emphatic 3-0 victory over Inter Milan in St. Louis.

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The Real coach opted to leave out a raft of senior players, handing the reins in attack to Alvaro Morata and the business of anchoring the midfield to Casemiro. Morata showed intelligent movement early on to draw the Inter defense apart for Kaka to glide through for Real's opener. The Brazilian's run was perfectly timed; his close control and quick feet produced a stinging shot that Samir Handanovic could only parry back toward No. 8, who then nodded home from a slightly uncomfortable height. There have been clear indications that Ancelotti has made his former pupil feel like a footballer again, and Kaka is likely to play a more prominent role this season, in as much as his fitness will permit. In any case, he showed on Saturday that he is fast regaining his touch, even if his speed might have remained largely in Milan.

Inter was probably wishing it had gone back to northern Italy after its fairly disastrous run in the International Champions Cup, in which it scored just one goal and avoided the wooden spoon by beating Juventus on penalties. Real might have matched Valencia's 4-0 score line had it taken more of the 13 chances created in the first half. Morata, whose desperation for a goal started to tell later on, spurned a glorious chance with a high shot after an audacious scooped pass over the defense from Casemiro.

The Brazilian -- who it will be noted many times only cost Real €6 million -- on the evidence of this performance, was Real's best player on the night. Assured in his defensive duties, he also played several pinpoint passes, one of which split the Inter back line for Ronaldo to thrash home an unstoppable shot at full canter.

There is little doubt that when the season starts in earnest next week and other players return from injury, Casemiro, Morata and Nacho will revert, at least initially, to substitute roles. But they have shown enough promise in preseason to give Ancelotti real alternatives to the established order. Morata displayed some deft touches and willing running but still lacks the ruthless finish of a genuine goal scorer. Like Benzema, he is almost a secondary striker, linking up and laying off but without the goal return of an out-and-out No. 9. It will come, but Benzema will be required to pick up the slack in the meantime if Ronaldo leaves his scoring boots at home for any length of time, which admittedly seems unlikely. Six goals in preseason suggest the Portuguese will begin precisely where he left off.

One summer recruit who has worked his way into first-team contention is Dani Carvajal. The former cadet, who graduated at Bayer Leverkusen last season, was a constant thorn down the right flank and solid defensively, making a goal-line clearance to cap a mature performance. Ancelotti is trying to instill a more possession-based game into the side -- while always looking for the chance to launch a counter -- and he will perhaps have to rein in his desire to get forward, but Carvajal has put himself in the shop window as the perfect complement to Marcelo when the Italian elects to push higher up the field. Carvajal was another €6 million wisely invested in an area that desperately needed addressing.

Inter was blown away in the first half; the Nerazzurri barely troubled Diego Lopez and lacked shape and coherence. The second period followed the well-beaten route of most friendlies: a slew of changes on both sides sucking any competitive edge from the match. For Real, it was noteworthy only for the chance to try Jese out in Ronaldo’s increasingly roving role, the youngster hitting the bar with his first rasping touch, and in wondering when Morata's luck will change. The canterano added a few to the shots tally but still drew a blank. His former Castilla teammates, David Mateos and Jorge Casado, each got a few minutes, while Carvajal, Casemiro, Angel di Maria and Morata were rightly awarded the full 90.

It's only preseason, but a return of six wins and a tie -- with 20 goals scored and five conceded -- is a decent platform. The first 45 minutes in St. Louis were the best Ancelotti's Real has mustered so far, although it is fair to say this is far from a vintage Inter Milan side. However, the likes of Isco, Mesut Ozil, Marcelo and Karim Benzema were on the bench while Xabi Alonso, Asier Illarramendi and Raphael Varane are still to return.

Ancelotti might not be able to field his preferred 11 in the Liga opener, but it is apparent that he might not need one set in stone as the season unfolds; the kids are alright.


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