Tuesday night’s humiliating Champions League exit at the hands of Ajax has painfully underlined the need for a major squad overhaul at the Bernabeu
One of the abiding memories of an unforgettable night for Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu was the Dutch club’s fans serenading their Real Madrid counterparts with Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ as it became clear that the hosts’ three-year reign as the kings of Europe was coming to a depressingly feeble end.
That may have been immensely amusing for the visitors but a 4-1 home loss was no laughing matter for Santiago Solari and his side, who, in the space of a week have been knocked out of the Copa del Rey, fallen 12 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and eliminated from the Champions League.
It has, as Dani Carvajal bluntly admitted afterwards, been “a sh*t season” for Real and the backlash is going to be brutal.
It’s already been pretty rough, in fairness, with the front page of Wednesday’s MARCA displaying a photo of the Bernabeu with the headline “Here lies a team that made history”.
We’re now poised for a massive clear-out in Madrid, with under-pressure president Florentino Perez poised to radically and ruthlessly overhaul the playing staff in a desperate bid to deflect attention away from his own failings.
So, which underperforming superstars should be sold? And who should survive the cull?…
THIBAUT COURTOIS: Real Madrid couldn’t prise David de Gea away from Manchester United, so they turned to Thibaut Courtois instead. They felt that the ‘best goalkeeper’ at last summer’s World Cup would be an upgrade on Keylor Navas. They were wrong. The former Chelsea No.1 obviously feels right at home in Madrid but he never looks remotely comfortable at the Bernabeu, particularly with the ball at his feet. The Belgian insists he’s “not bad” but, to be brutally honest, that’s not good enough for a Real Madrid goalkeeper. Still, given the De Gea dream has died, and it would be impossible to persuade Manchester City, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona to part company with the game’s truly elite shot-stoppers (Ederson, Alisson, Jan Oblak and Marc-Andre ter Stegen), Courtois is likely to be afforded a stay of execution.
KEYLOR NAVAS: It’s difficult not to feel a large degree of sympathy for Keylor Navas. As the man himself has said, “I went from winning three Champions Leagues to not playing!” The Costa Rican will not endure that ignominious and nonsensical demotion any longer. Not even a dodgy fax machine will prevent him from leaving at the end of the season.
SERGIO RAMOS: ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ – Sergio Ramos was sitting in the stands, having got himself deliberately suspended for the second leg of a tie that he felt was over, as Real’s European empire was brought crashing down by Ajax. For all his leadership qualities, this was a gross and stupid dereliction of duty on the defender’s part and, in truth, it should at least cost him the captaincy. Ramos, though, retains incredible sway at the Bernabeu. It was he, after all, who sent a coded public warning to his employers about their interest in hiring noted disciplinarian Antonio Conte to replace Julen Lopetegui. In that sense, Madrid are now in a mess partly of Ramos’ making. The next permanent coach would be well advised to immediately assert his authority on the senior squad by offloading a dreadfully reckless player who has long been a liability. As Goal has confirmed, Ramos and Perez clashed after the Ajax loss, meaning the defender’s departure is actually possible – even more so now that former sparring partner Jose Mourinho is set to take over. Getting rid of Ramos would be the right call, too, because even as a player, he is no longer as strong as he once was, as we saw in last weekend’s Clasico. The best way to rebuild Real would be to remove one of the crumbling pillars of their European success.
RAPHAEL VARANE: The Frenchman has not played well this season; there are no arguments there. In truth, he hasn’t looked like his usual imperious self since helping France win the World Cup last summer. However, calls for him to be offloaded after his defensive debacle against Ajax were almost offensively ridiculous. Varane may be running on empty right now, resulting in uncharacteristically sloppy play, but he remains one of the finest centre-halves in the world when fit and focused. The 25-year-old should remain the cornerstone of the Madrid defence for years to come.
NACHO: The humbling at home to Ajax painfully illustrated that, while Nacho may be as ill-disciplined and aggressive as Sergio Ramos, he shares none of his defensive attributes. The versatile defender offers cover across the back four but his contract expires in 2020 and Madrid should try to get whatever money they can for him while they have the chance.
DANI CARVAJAL: The Spanish right-back also looked horribly out of sorts against Ajax but, again, it would be foolish to even consider releasing one of Madrid’s most reliable – and under-rated – performers over the past three years. Granted, he has been below his best of late but there are mitigating circumstances, given he – just like Isco – has been blighted by niggling injuries. Madrid are a far better side with Carvajal in the team, though, and he will prove that again when he returns to full fitness.
ALVARO ODRIOZOLA: It’s been a trying first season in the Spanish capital for Alvaro Odriozola. The €30 million signing looks nothing like the enormously exciting right-back that essentially went from Real Sociedad’s reserves to Spain’s World Cup squad in the space of 12 months. Carvajal’s starting berth was there for the taking but Odriozola didn’t even get close to claiming it. He has impressed against lower-level opposition in the Copa del Rey but struggled horribly against any credible adversaries. Nonetheless, he deserves another season to prove his worth.
MARCELO: The best left-back in the world 12 months ago yet now a Real reserve. Marcelo may be in decline but he is still only 30 and he remains a far superior player to his replacement, Sergio Reguilon. Santiago Solari is probably the only coach in the world that takes a differing view and while his days at the Bernabeu are numbered, so too are Marcelo’s. Cristiano Ronaldo wants the Brazilian to join him at Juventus and it seems like only a matter of time before the Portuguese gets his way.
LUKA MODRIC: The best player in the world?! Luka Modric has looked nothing like a Ballon d’Or winner this season. His sluggish start to the 2018-19 campaign was, understandably, attributed to his exploits at the World Cup but even he subsequently admitted fatigue was no longer the issue. So, what is the problem? Because Modric was utterly ineffective in Real’s back-to-back Clasico defeats before being given the run-around by Ajax. His contract renewal remains unsigned and one wonders if Madrid should withdraw that offer. They fought to hold on to the 33-year-old when he wanted to go to Inter last summer. Maybe now it’s time to cash in on a player with just over a year left on his current deal.
TONI KROOS: Toni Kroos is a fine footballer; one bad season hasn’t changed anything in that regard. The issue here seems to be motivation. Kroos no longer seems as driven as he once was, perhaps because he feels those around him are no longer as driven as they once were; three successive Champions Leagues can do that to a team. Every top team in Europe would jump at the chance to sign one of the game’s greatest playmakers and the word around the Bernabeu is that Real are willing to let go one of their finest servants and best-ever signings. It would be a bitter blow, particularly as adequately replacing him would be so difficult, but if Kroos wants out, there’s no point in standing in his way. After all he’s done, he deserves to leave on his own terms.
CASEMIRO: On a humiliating night for Real in general, nobody suffered greater embarrassment than Casemiro, who made Dusan Tadic look like Zinedine Zidane. Those who have been watching Madrid closely would not have been too surprised to see the Brazilian struggling so badly, though. He has been dire this season. There have been a couple of spectacular goals but that is not what Casemiro is meant to be about. In theory, he is meant to break up play, retain possession and provide the back four with protection. In reality, he has just been giving the ball and fouls away. Casemiro has been a brutally effective midfield enforcer for Madrid but that job should now go to someone else.
ISCO: Another key member of Zinedine Zidane’s squad ostracised by Santiago Solari, Isco wasn’t even in the squad for the second leg against Ajax. Should there be a change of leadership before the end of the season, the gifted attacking midfielder may yet revive his ailing Madrid career. However, at this stage, Isco is one of those already packing his bags. He has been irked by a perceived lack of support from those around him – not just Solari – and has plenty of suitors. Indeed, at 26, he is approaching his prime. There would, of course, be uproar if Real sold one of Spain’s biggest attacking talents to bitter rivals Barcelona, so a move abroad seems the most likely outcome. That would still be a crying shame, though, given Isco is precisely the kind of player Madrid should rebuild around.
DANI CEBALLOS: This season may be going terribly for Madrid but it’s not been too bad at all for Dani Ceballos. The former Betis midfielder saw little game time under Zinedine Zidane but has featured regularly this term, under both Julen Lopetegui and Solari. True, he hasn’t been trusted in the biggest games but Ceballos has shown flashes of just why everybody got so excited about him during the European Under-21 Championship in 2017. This is a player of enormous potential, one who has already broken into Luis Enrique’s Spain team. Madrid would be mad to let him go anywhere.
FEDE VALVERDE: One of the few success stories of Real’s season, Fede Valverde impressed Lopetegui during pre-season, while Solari never had any doubts about the Uruguayan’s potential, having coached him at Castilla. The end result has been that the 20-year-old has seen more game time than he would have expected. Already a regular in the Uruguay set-up, Valverde could well prove an excellent replacement for Casemiro. Going places and yet simultaneously going nowhere!
MARCOS LLORENTE: The 24-year-old started every single game Madrid played in December, including both outings at the FIFA Club World Cup but then he saw his progress checked by injury. Llorente should force his way back into the first-team picture between now and the end of the season but it would not be a surprise to see him moved on during the summer.
KARIM BENZEMA: As soon as Ronaldo left, Madrid needed to sign a prolific No.9. They still do. Of course, the idea (or perhaps ‘hope’) was that Ronaldo’s departure would set Karim Benzema free and, in fairness, he has already scored more goals this season (20 in all competitions) since 2015-2016 (28). It’s not proven anywhere near enough to fill the void left by the Portuguese, though. There have been nowhere near enough decisive strikes either. Benzema produced an emphatic finish in the first leg against Ajax but was anonymous in the return, just as he was in the two Clasicos that preceded it. The forward still has plenty of friends in high places at the Bernabeu, so he should avoid the chopping block. However, for all his attacking attributes, the 31-year-old simply should not be spearheading Real’s attack any longer.
VINICIUS JUNIOR: This one’s not even up for debate. Vinicius Junior has been a ray of sunshine during these desperately dark days at the Bernabeu. Yes, he is a work in progress but the raw talent and the enormous potential are there for all to see. If Solari has done nothing else of value during his time in charge, he has at least let Vinicius Junior loose on La Liga. The Brazilian temporarily revived Real’s season. If his former Flamengo youth team strike partner Rodrygo makes anything like the same impact when he arrives next season, Madrid will have serious grounds for optimism again.
MARCO ASENSIO: Nobody expected Marco Asensio to replace Ronaldo in terms of goals. However, it was thought that the Spain international would adequately fill the void left by ‘CR7’ on the left wing. He had the ability, he had the experience and now he had the opportunity to establish himself as one of the world’s best players. It’s not gone according to plan. The 23-year-old Asensio has been completely upstaged by the 18-year-old Vinicius. There have been question marks over Asensio’s mental strength, given the way in which he has reacted to the pressure of succeeding Ronaldo. That seems terribly unfair but the Bernabeu is no place for sensitive souls and Asensio’s future is very much in doubt, with mounting talk of a move to the Premier League. With Vinicius out of action for two months, Asensio needs to step up. If he doesn’t, he’ll be ditched.
LUCAS VAZQUEZ: Let’s be brutally honest here: Lucas Vazquez shouldn’t be Real Madrid’s first-choice right winger. In truth, there’s probably no more damning indictment of the club’s post-Zidane planning. The 27-year-old has performed reasonably well, by his standards; not by Real’s. We are, after all, talking about a player playing in attack who has scored just once in La Liga this season. Madrid need to do whatever it takes to sign a world-class winger this summer.
MARIANO DIAZ: The attacker wasn’t good enough for Real Madrid in 2017. He’s still not good enough for Real Madrid. A year at Lyon didn’t change anything. Of course, the Blancos only re-signed the forward because he was cheap and he was available. But you get what you pay for in this age and what Madrid now have is a player not even deemed good enough for a seat on the bench against Ajax. Mariano should be moved on again this summer.
BRAHIM DIAZ: The 19-year-old Spaniard left Manchester City in January because he was promised first-team opportunities in Madrid. He’s been given very few thus far. Indeed, he’s seen just 24 minutes of game time. This week from hell could well work in his favour, though. With their season now effectively over and Vinicius and Vazquez both injured, it would be in the club’s interest to take a closer look at Brahim between now and the end of the season before deciding whether to send him out on loan this summer.
GARETH BALE: Less than a year ago, Gareth Bale came off the bench in the Champions League final and promptly scored one of the finest goals in the tournament’s history as Real retained their European crown. On Tuesday night, he was sent on to try to rescue Madrid’s season and was whistled by a significant section of the Bernabeu crowd. The Welsh winger has clearly failed dismally to integrate into the Blancos squad but his treatment by the club, their fans and his team-mates is still somewhat baffling. Granted, his injury record is frustratingly dire but he has scored some of the most important goals in Madrid’s history. Regardless, he will almost certainly be ushered out the Bernabeu’s back door this summer. He may have few supporters left in Spain but has a plethora of admirers in England. As one of Madrid’s most valuable assets, Bale’s sale and the removal of his hefty pay packet from the wage bill will free up funds for the long overdue reconstruction of Real Madrid.
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