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Transfer Rater: Neymar to Real Madrid

Football Whispers

Madrid elicit Bernabeu boos in win

It was job done as far as Real Madrid were concerned in their opening La Liga match of the season against Cordoba, winning 2-0. The whistles from the Bernabeu crowd on Monday night, however, provided all you needed to know about the European champions' performance.

Goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo eventually saw Carlo Ancelotti's men to three points against Albert Ferrer's newly promoted side, but Los Blancos lacked spark. That flat performance highlighted how poor of a decision it could be to let Angel Di Maria join Manchester United.

Los Blancos may have fashioned 14 chances on goal, eight of which were on target, and controlled 63 percent of possession against the Andalusians, but there was something missing. Not only could Di Maria grab a game by the scruff of the neck, he linked defence to attack and provided a balance that his manager found hard to achieve. Now the Italian may have to be patient in finding that balance again.

It took Madrid a while to tick last season, and it coincided with Gareth Bale's arrival and moving Di Maria to the middle of the park. When it clicked, it guided Madrid to the Copa del Rey and La Decima.

It was Ancelotti's first season at the Bernabeu and time to adapt was expected, but a year on and the former Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Milan boss will have been eager to hit the ground running following his success last term. Di Maria's departure has meant a small rebuild is now taking place.

It showed against Cordoba. While there were decent individual performances from summer signings James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, as well as a workmanlike showing from goal scorer Karim Benzema, there was little to scare the rest of La Liga despite a splurge of more than 100 million euros to bolster a squad that are already champions of Europe. As with last season, Ancelotti may still be working to decipher his best starting XI.

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This despite already playing three competitive games in the space of the past fortnight in the shape of the UEFA Super Cup, which they won 2-0 against Sevilla, and the Spanish Super Cup, which they lost 2-1 on aggregate against neighbours Atletico. While the "BBC" of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano currently picks itself, Madrid's defence was rusty and against a better team would have been punished for their mistakes.

Strangely, Alvaro Arbeloa was picked ahead of Dani Carvajal at right-back, a move that may well have been a mark of respect to Cordoba given the former Liverpool man's more defensive nature, while Fabio Coentrao missed out through injury. The Portugal international was expiated to be Ancelotti's first-choice left-back this season but his misfortune has left Marcelo with a chance to cement a starting role.

One decision has already been made in handing Iker Casillas the No. 1 spot indefinitely. Whether Ancelotti was going to pick summer recruit Keylor Navas or the Spanish and club captain was the big talking point before the season, and the position is now Casillas' to lose. He kept a clean sheet in Madrid's opener, but the Cordoba attackers did not give the stopper too many problems and he was unconvincing from set pieces.

Los Blancos' defensive unit looked poor throughout, from mistimed tackles and poor communication to basic errors in the pass and being out of position on a number of occasions. Los Califas did not provide the quality to take advantage but they did have the ball in the back of Casillas' goal on one occasion, seeing it ruled out correctly for offside.

Their instability may not have been helped by the absence of regular feature Xabi Alonso in front of them. While Luka Modric and Kroos offer some defensive outlet, they are not in the same mindset as Alonso, who often drops back to form a defensive trio when the full-backs pour forward.

The gap between Madrid's back four and middle three was one of the main reasons Ancelotti's side looked unbalanced. There were some encouraging plays between the back and front, but they were few far in between.

Toni Kroos has looked particularly pleasing for Real Madrid, but he doesn't provide the defence the same protection as Xabi Alonso.

With two of that middle three being new to the party, however, expect them to grow. Madrid just need to ensure they keep winning as they keep growing and with some tricky fixtures coming up in their next few matches, it's going to be tough.

On the positive side, Cristiano Ronaldo got through a full 90 minutes without suffering a recurrence of his problematic knee injury. The Ballon d'Or holder didn't start against Atleti last Friday and the doubts continued over his fitness.

Whether he is fully fit is doubtful, however, with Ronaldo far from producing a stellar performance despite a superb goal to mark his 250th appearance for the club. Ancelotti has said the former Manchester United man will undergo some specific training before the international break but he is likely to play when Madrid visit San Sebastian to face Real Sociedad next weekend.

Karim Benzema also got his long-awaited goal to silence some of his critics for the time being. The Spanish press highlighted the Frenchman's failure to find the back of the net in club football over the past four months, and the fact he had only scored once in his previous 15 matches -- the Champions League semifinal first leg against Bayern Munich.

He scored in the first league match of last season, however, and opened Madrid's account again Monday with a bullet header from a Kroos corner on the half-hour mark. He worked hard, too, putting in a good shift before being replaced by Sami Khedira with 15 minutes left.

Madrid played poorly and won on the opening day of the season and that's necessary if they're to win La Liga for the first time in three years. They will need to show big improvements, too, if they're to topple Atleti and Barca this season, however, with Ancelotti needing to find that much-needed balance sooner rather than later and show the sale of Di Maria was not such a bad decision after all.

Nicholas Rigg writes about Real Madrid for ESPN FC and blogs about La Liga for The Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @nicholasrigg.


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