Who can fill Alonso's boots for now?

Posted by Rob Train

A little over 11 years ago the nonfootball world was enlightened as to what exactly a metatarsal is. Argentine midfielder Aldo Duscher, who could be kindly described as an old-school enforcer, was the man who had everybody reaching for their medical encyclopedias (Wikipedia was only six months old), for the metatarsal he snapped was that of David Beckham, then playing for Manchester United in a Champions League quarterfinal win over Deportivo la Coruña. The problem for Beckham, England -- and Japan's and Korea's combined coffers -- was that the World Cup was just around the corner and nobody on the outside looking in seemed entirely sure just how long the darned thing would take to heal.

Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who did know what a metatarsal was and probably saw a fair few knackered during his playing days in the rough-and-tumble Scottish leagues in the '60s and '70s -- when it was still called a broken foot and was probably played through -- said of Beckham's injury: "The metatarsal bone is a delicate area and the estimation of eight weeks out wouldn't be inaccurate."

Thanks to the media frenzy over Beckham's left foot, everybody now knows how long such an injury takes to heal. Eight weeks is the general prognosis; up to 12 is possible. In any case a medical staff's hearts are in their mouths when the player takes to the pitch competitively, waiting for that first opposition tackle to come flying in.

All of which presents Carlo Ancelotti with a bit of a headache after just one match of the new season. It was confirmed Wednesday that Xabi Alonso, who was on the verge of first-team action after undergoing surgery in June to fix a niggling groin injury, had broken a metatarsal in training. Alonso was wrapped in cotton wool at the tail end of last season and wheeled out for the big games to manage that complaint.

Ancelotti will now have to fashion a Plan B to see him through to early November at the very least, although Raphael Varane's return will ameliorate Real's defensive frailty in the interim. But Alonso's influence, not just as a cool head but also as one of Real's leaders on the field, will be difficult to replicate with what's left.

Of course, Real has spent big, and small, on a pair of backups for Alonso and also has Sami Khedira, who can operate in the anchor role but is more suited to playing with the security of Alonso at his side to be able to move upfield.

Asier Illarramendi was signed for around 30 million euros after basically one full season at Real Sociedad -- the highest fee Real has ever paid for a Spaniard. That is quite a weight of responsibility on the shoulders of a 23-year-old who was never really under pressure at La Real due to the lack of expectations, and the fact that he and the team as a whole exceeded those by some considerable margin. It remains to be seen whether Illarramendi will blossom or wilt if handed the anchor position in Alonso's absence; he is still not ready for first-team action after picking up a muscle injury in preseason.

Khedira is the senior player left to cover Alonso's vacated position, but his performances in preseason and especially against Betis last weekend in Real's first competitive match have not exactly convinced. Ancelotti bemoaned the lack of defensive cohesion against the Andalusians and while nobody covered himself in glory at the bunker end of the pitch, the German looked particularly bewildered by Betis' early onslaught.

Luka Modric has grown into a deeper playmaking role than he used to occupy, but without the assurance of Alonso in shielding the defense, distribution and controlling the tempo of the game, Real was swamped by a Betis side that just turned up to have a bloody good go and see what happened, in line with Pepe Mel's philosophy.

It has probably been mentioned in a couple of places already, but it is worth noting again that the electric Congolese-Spaniard Cedric, who ran Real ragged in the first half, bought out his contract with Numancia for the price of a half a Bernabeu nonalcoholic beer. Real has paid for champagne football and Khedira in the holding role looks like a hangover of Hemingway proportions waiting to happen, especially if a tricky Champions League group stage develops; plenty of strong teams are lurking in the poor man's pots.

Which leaves Casemiro, the youngster signed from Sao Paulo for just 6 million euros who made his first-team debut against Betis last season and his second appearance for the senior side against the same opposition a few days ago. The Brazilian certainly looked the part in preseason and played a starring role in the match against Inter Milan.

But again, the question marks remain: Can a 21-year-old signed as a long-term prospect, much like Illarramendi, be expected to step into the considerable boots of a player as experienced and decorated as Alonso? It is something Ancelotti will have to ponder over the coming days, beginning with a reasonably soft trip to Granada next Monday.

Matches against Athletic and Villarreal may stretch the Italian's defensive resources a little more, before a trip to the Calderon and the small matter of a Camp Nou Clasico, all in the very likely absence of Alonso. The Champions League draw takes place on Aug. 29, just days before the transfer deadline. With a certain Welsh fish still to be fried by all accounts, will Real bother lining up a replacement just in case? Michael Essien will be sorely missed for now but is at home again at Chelsea, but other options may be available with the right sort of bait: Big Geoff Kondogbia for one won't be setting his cell phone to silent before Sept. 2.

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