You hear a lot these days about the shopping-list being prepared at Real Madrid for the summer: Long and luxurious. The bill for it will certainly be hefty. When standards slip, Madrid spend big, and with the defence of their Primera Liga title shredding, and alarm growing ahead of their last-16 Uefa Champions League meeting next month with Paris Saint-Germain, the club anticipate a dramatic, expensive overhaul.
At the headquarters of the champions of Germany, of England, and even of Italy, there is a certain quiet pleasure at seeing the Madrid who collected the Spanish, European and Fifa Club World Cup titles in 2017 plunged into introspection about the limitations of their resources. Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Juventus are all clubs who have directly profited from Madrid's fidgety discarding of talent.
Bayern have had almost a decade of excellence from Arjen Robben since Madrid let the Dutchman go, partly to make space for Cristiano Ronaldo. The latest madridista manqué exciting crowds in Munich is James Rodriguez. He started his 2018 with an assist and a goal in the weekend’s 3-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen. And with his distinctive boyish grin, Rodriguez declared his happiness in his new home, and hinted at a hope his two-year loan agreement with Bayern – from the Madrid who recruited him for a fortune in 2014 – can soon turn into a more permanent deal.
Less cheery right now is Alvaro Morata, who, like James, left Madrid in the summer, his move to Chelsea his second departure from the club he grew up with. Morata was a Juventus player for two years between the age of 21 and 23, and thrived enough that he started in a Champions League final for the Italians. Madrid bought him back in 2016.
But, like Rodriguez, Morata played what felt like a marginal part in the prestige triumphs of last season. Morata registered a superb goals-per-minute record at centre-forward in 2016/17, but the minutes he counted up most were the many spent sitting on the bench.
Here’s the damning statistic: Between them, Rodriguez and Morata played just 10 minutes of Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and final combined. In the domain of the "BBC" – Bale, Benzema, Cristiano – they found themselves very low in the alphabet. At 26 and 25 years old respectively, the Colombian Rodriguez and the Spain international Morata needed more, especially in a World Cup year.
Morata is Chelsea’s record signing, thanks to the £60 million-plus (Dh303m) paid to Madrid for him last July. With 10 goals already in his first Premier League season, he has made a fine start, and looked quite the target man Chelsea need for Antonio Conte’s game plan, based on wing-backs and swift counters. As Madrid struggle, with Karim Benzema short of goals and Cristiano Ronaldo connecting with fewer crosses, Morata is missed, longed for there. He has scored as many league goals this term as the all the BBC put together.
Yet the Morata of the autumn is also being missed at Chelsea. His recent symptoms of low confidence, perhaps fatigue – a series of fluffed finishes – have combined with the English champions suffering an unusually long shortage of goals, so much so that Antonio Conte’s team go into Wednesday’s FA Cup replay against Norwich City on the back of three successive 0-0 draws. Conte must weigh up whether this is the fixture to invite Morata to recover his mojo in, or a midweek assignment where he might be allowed to rest.
“The problem is for all the team, not only for Morata,” said the Chelsea manager of the goal drought.
The problems for Rodriguez - the leading scorer at the last World Cup and an €80m (Dh359m) recruit when Madrid bought him from Monaco - lie in the past, believes Jupp Heynckes, the Bayern manager.
“He is playing a in a different role here than the right or left wing he played at Madrid,” said the veteran Heynckes. “We see him playing as an attacking midfielder.”
As a No 10, Rodriguez is governing matches, and as he fired in a direct free kick at the weekend to cap a brilliant display, Madrid noted his dead-ball skills are just one of the aspects his parent club are missing.
Bayern may be inclined to become Rodriguez’s parent club soon. They have a €42m purchase option. “Bayern is a super club,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been here only a short time, but I’ve been very happy. I can imagine staying a long time.”
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