Real Madrid's big-name signings don't guarantee La Liga success
That's one down, one to go from Carlo Ancelotti's point of view. The Real Madrid manager will have kept a nervous eyebrow on the France vs. Spain friendly in Paris, with five of his players on the pitch in the Stade de France.
International fixtures are the bane of a club manager's life, and much as he would probably like, Ancelotti has not yet acquired Sir Alex Ferguson's animated distaste for the unwelcome intrusion. Many Manchester United players during the irascible Scot's reign would invariably pick up a niggling injury just before international duty, only to be fit as fiddles when domestic action resumed. Ancelotti has too few strings in the bow of his team at the moment to rest easy when FIFA is in town.
Sami Khedira is injured again, and the tit-for-tat dispute as to where and when is of no concern to the Real Madrid manager. The Italian appeared far from amused when Xabi Alonso was allowed to leave the club at the 11th hour and now he finds himself further weakened in the area of his squad that needs the most attention.
Real were far from brilliant in the absence of the Basque at the beginning of last season, and Ancelotti publicly acclaimed the player as key to his plans for the side. At the beginning of a new campaign, Real hardly shone in Cardiff with Alonso serving a suspension and were very nearly embarrassed with him on the bench against Liga minnows Cordoba. A week later, with Alonso decamped to Munich, La Real applied the finishing touch to Real's early-season misery.
Florentino Perez's transfer policy has always been deeply divisive. In any bar in the capital, the mere mention of the "Zidanes and Pavones" experiment elicits snorts of derision. But this summer, the construction magnate has exceeded even himself, pulling down a side good enough to win the Champions League after 12 years of asking and handing Ancelotti a rebuild he could scarcely have conceived.
In fairness, any coach taking the Real Madrid job knows the fine print before the contract is presented. There are certain aspects of team selection that are unspoken aside from the suited murmur of money: the boardroom does not pay exorbitant fees to provide the manager with bench-dwellers. It was a reason that Jose Antonio Camacho touched upon -- although when Camacho touches something it is with a sledgehammer -- when he stalked from the Bernabeu after three games in charge in 2004. Apparently the club sponsors were none too happy when it was learned that Camacho planned to leave Raul, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham on the bench, and the team sheet was hastily altered.
That may of course be urban myth, but the fact that Camacho chose to leave the club he made 414 appearances for in 15 years after 270 minutes of football speaks volumes. His previous stint, under Perez's predecessor Lorenzo Sanz in 1998, lasted all of 22 days. Perez may be far more than a silent partner wielding the chequebook, but he is far from a historical rarity in the Bernabeu's corridors of power. Ancelotti is a seasoned campaigner, and last year he improvised his side to good effect; Mesut Ozil was sold at the last minute to Arsenal and Angel Di Maria, whose place was to be occupied by Gareth Bale, was recycled as an all-action midfielder on the opposite flank.
This summer, there is little doubt the Italian would have preferred to retain Di Maria and Alonso. Had he been consulted, he would probably have advised against signing James Rodriguez. He is too similar to Bale and Isco and against Sociedad displayed an unwillingness, verging on impertinence, to track back, leaving Dani Carvajal helpless. It didn't take La Real long to spot and it won't be lost on future opponents either.
All in all, Ancelotti has been left with a squad as balanced as Sofia Vergara trying to haul the Titanic's anchor in. But the primary concern now is at the base of midfield. Toni Kroos is a wonderful player but not a natural defensive midfielder; Casemiro has been loaned out to Porto despite a handful of promising performances last season; Asier Illarramendi is one of five first-team players at Ancelotti's disposal this week, while Ander Iturraspe received a Spain call-up. The player's lack of confidence and minutes, combined with Ancelotti's reluctance to hand him anything approaching responsibility, has stymied Illarramendi's potential.
It might not be terminal, but shock treatment is unlikely to help either -- Ancelotti needs to find a midfield capable of dealing with Atletico's before next weekend, and the young Basque is unlikely to fill his manager with confidence. A bad result could cast Ancelotti into his first Real Madrid "crisis."
Spain, of course, has a bit of form with crises. But the ones that engulf Real from time to time are produced almost entirely by a moody national media. However, the thought does emerge that Real is a significant injury away from a genuine spot of bother. To borrow from Edmund Blackadder: "In fact, if you've got a moment, it's a 12-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying 'This Is a Large Crisis'."
Real Madrid is the five-star hotel of European football clubs, but this summer the big hitters been outmaneuvered by challengers to their long-desired continental crown. Manchester United have acquired Di Maria -- who simply smiled when asked what Perez would have thought as he put Germany to the sword single-handed -- and Radamel Falcao, whose father said Real didn't want to cough up for his son's services.
Barcelona has reinforced well, if under duress due to a transfer embargo. Atletico has added plenty of flair to its foundations and Jose Mourinho has instilled Diego Simeone's mentality at Stamford Bridge by nicking half of his team. What Perez has achieved is to break up the best and most successful Real Madrid of the past decade for commercial purposes. And his manager has now to pick up the pieces.
Cristiano Ronaldo has presented his teeth to the feeding hand before, but that was over money. The fact that he openly criticized Real's transfer policy and said he would like to return to United in the space of a couple of days this week should provide Perez with a wake-up call. Unfortunately for Real Madrid supporters, there is little chance of any coffee being smelled on the part of El Presidente; Perez altered the club's statutes after his last re-election to ensure that pretty much nobody in the country can afford to stand against him. When he last triumphed at the ballots he was the only candidate, and there's little to suggest anything different will occur in 2015.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.