Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Schuster lets rip

Bernd Schuster has never been one to mince his words and he has once again shown that he has not learned to keep his counsel when perhaps discretion was called for. In today's press conference to recap the first 10 days of preseason training, he sent a pretty direct message to the club's sporting director, Predrag Mijatovic, about the way he has been kept informed of the club's movements in the transfer market. "I'm used to being the last one to know. Everyone finds out except me, and it's more important for me to know. It's not great to find out from other sources and not to be able to answer questions from the media".

Schuster complained about the lack of communication, as noone from the club called him following Monday's board meeting to discuss the transfer market: "that would be a good question for Mijatovic, to see whether he feels it is necessary to call me. Maybe he thinks it's unnecessary and a matter for the club only".

Ramón Calderón will visit the squad today and will meet with Schuster to keep him informed. The German coach will ask for reinforcements in the midfield and forward lines, and soon: "we have to do things more quickly than in previous years, where new players have arrived very late, at the last minute". He was no doubt referring to the late arrival of reinforcements last year, especially Heinze and Robben, leaving little time to integrate them into the team.

"We won the League, but we have to improve the squad, if the players are available, so we can go further in the Champions League. I assume no signings have yet been made official because everyone is still waiting for the 'big one'".

Schuster did confirm that, as far as he is concerned, Robinho is staying. But then, if he is not being kept apprised of movements in the market, he hardly seems to have the last word on the matter. He was involved earlier in "drawing up some strategies to follow. I don't know if they have changed, but it would be good to know".

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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The "forgotten" star

The Futbolitis blog is a superb resource for those interested in a deeper analysis both of tactics and the politics of football, without many of the rumours and sensationalism associated with more traditional media. As the articles are written in Spanish, I thought I would share some of the highlights of the item that was published earlier today regarding one of Ramón Calderón's broken electoral promises when he became Real Madrid president: Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaká.

The authors argue that Kaká could be the signing that both Barcelona and Real Madrid should be looking at this summer. In Barcelona's case, they need a replacement for the recently departed Ronaldinho and they had their chance earlier in the transfer window. Milan don't have the money they once had to invest in renewing their ageing side; they did not qualify for the Champions League. Galliani, president of Milan, was interested in a swap with come of the Barcelona players, but the board was in the middle of getting rid of Rijkaard and replacing him with Guardiola and missed the boat.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have been putting aside money for the on-off transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo. Kaká is arguably a much better technical fit, as he is and has always been a team player rather than a highly talented individual, but with the vision and skill to replace Guti as the main playmaker. Guti, in contrast, has never had the temperament to provide that vision week in, week out and is also five-and-a-half years older.

For a while last season, Real flirted with moving Gago up to Guti's position, which proved unsuccessful. The Argentine has been good at playing the ball forward to Guti and Sneijder, but he really is no Redondo, though perhaps, at his age, he should be given the benefit of the doubt, and more time to develop.

The figures for the transfer of Kaká are comparable to those being rumoured for Cristiano Ronaldo, possibly even larger. Chelsea are reportedly interested, but then, Chelsea seem to be interested in everybody. The main difference financially between Ronaldo and Kaká is that the Portuguese has been spending his holiday time signing sponsorship deal after sponsorship deal (did you really think he was going to LA for the club scene?). This means that from an image rights perspective, his transfer is much less amortisable that, say, David Beckham's was.

Making the money that Real Madrid made with David Beckham is not possible in these more media-savvy days, but Kaká's image is much more up for grabs. On the personal front, the Brazilian is a committed Christian and family man, a much less likely target for all those scandal-hungry paparazzi.

Will Calderón change course mid-stream and go for Kaká? It's a long shot, but it may be worth considering.

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Monday, 28 July 2008

Robben shines in lacklustre Linz test

After a week of intensive training in Irdning, Real Madrid had their first (semi)competitive match of the preseason against Austrian opponents. LASK Linz currently leads the Austrian first division with three wins out of four, and are therefore significantly more match fit than the Spanish side. The game, which ended 3-2 to Real (with goals from Baptista, Raúl and Saviola) revealed little about what we may expect this season, but a few clues could be gleaned here and there.

The first thing to note is the makeshift nature of the defence. Casillas and Ramos are still on holiday after Euro 2008, Cannavaro is still recovering from his ankle injury and Pepe picked up a knock in training this week. Schuster therefore started with Dudek in goal, Salgado as right back, Heinze and Javi García in the centre, and Torres at left back. Javi García, recently bought back from Osasuna, has played in defence before, but his preferred position is in midfield, and his inexperience, and lack of understanding with his team-mates, showed when Saurer got the better of him to score after 13 minutes. He was also responsible for the penalty in injury time, which saw LASK narrow the gap.

Robben was without doubt Real's most in-form player. Physically he has been excelling in training all week, together with Diarra. During the game his runs into space and pinpoint crosses resulted in Real's first two goals. He linked well with Guti, who was not put under any particular pressure and thus had plenty of time to pick his passes. The Spaniard was ably replaced in the second half by Dani Parejo, one of the four Castilla players Schuster has taken with him to Austria. Two of the other three, Callejón and Antón, also got a run-out. The likelihood of any of them getting any playing time with the first team this season is very low, though it depends on any movements Real makes in the transfer market. Parejo, though, at least made good use of his 25 minutes on the pitch and provided the pass for Saviola to score Real's eventual winner.

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Friday, 25 July 2008

Mijatovic makes a move

During this interminable summer transfer saga that is Cristiano Ronaldo, it has at times seemed like Real Madrid were putting everything on hold, waiting for him to either arrive or decide to stay at Manchester United. Whether because there's just over a month left of the transfer window, or because Real know that there's a good chance they won't be getting the Portuguese winger this summer, it now looks like Mijatovic has decided to make his first move in the market (if you don't count Garay, back in May). The target is Netherlands midfielder and Hamburg captain Rafael van der Vaart.

The 25-year-old Dutchman, who has a Spanish mother, joined Hamburg from Ajax in 2005 for €5.5 million as midfield playmaker and has since been given the captaincy of their squad. He was instrumental in Hamburg's performance in last season's Bundesliga and has been linked with a number of clubs even before the summer transfer window, among them Chelsea, Inter, Valencia, as well as Real Madrid. Though he signed a 5-year deal with Hamburg, his contract terms state that from the end of the upcoming season, he can leave the club for a "mere" €1 million, hence the upsurge in interest in his services.

The German club's website noted in a brief announcement yesterday evening that they had received and rejected an offer from Real Madrid, as "unworthy of discussion". The value of the offer was then disclosed in German newspaper Die Welt as €6 million, coming in the form of a fax sent to Hamburg Thursday evening by Real Madrid sports director Predrag Mijatovic.

Van der Vaart could potentially be seen as a medium-term replacement for Guti, as he has played alongside Sneijder in that position both at Ajax and in the Dutch national side. The Real Madrid vice-captain, though indisputably talented, suffers from erratic form (and questionable temper) and has finished many of his 14 seasons at the club as a substitute. Nonetheless, he had a pretty regular season under Schuster last year and back in April signed a 'life contract', which saw his previous deal extended until 2011 with an annual renewal clause if he plays 30 games every season.

Hamburg's outright rejection of the offer is seen as a first step in the negotiations between both clubs, who are expected to revisit the matter when they meet in London for the Emirates Cup at the beginning of August.

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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Cannavaro's last season?

Fabio Cannavaro could be about to start his third and last season with Real Madrid, according to his agent. In an interview with Italian radio station Kiss Kiss, Gaetano Fedele said that "the way things currently stand, this will be Fabio's last season wearing the Real Madrid shirt. In any case, we will see during the season whether there is an opportunity to renew the contract with Real Madrid. Fabio's dream has always been to return to play for Napoli".

Cannavaro joined Real Madrid from Juventus in 2006 (following the "Moggigate" match-fixing scandal which saw them demoted to Serie B) and signed a three-year contract, which, if he leaves at the end of next June, he will have seen out in its entirety. This is consistent with his recent comments about the Cristiano Ronaldo affair and Sepp Blatter's rather misguided intervention: "slavery is a big word, someone who signs a contract must respect it".

Clearly, there is some wiggle room, and Fedele's comments could be construed as a gentle salvo to Real Madrid about a possible contract extension. While Real have the ready-made replacement of Garay waiting in the wings for next season, it may be prudent to wait and see whether Metzelder, who had a relatively poor European championship following his return from injury, is up to the task. I expect that, barring injury, Pepe will be a regular starter in the centre of defence this season, accompanied by both Cannavaro and Metzelder, depending on form.

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Monday, 21 July 2008

Schuster takes 4 youngsters to Austria

Bernd Schuster will take four players from the Real Madrid Castilla squad (Real's reserves) to join the rest of the "expedition" to Austria for preseason training. The four are Dani Parejo (midfield) and Antón (defender), fresh from the Spain U-19 squad's disappointing European Championships, as well as Juanmi Callejón (midfielder) and Felipe (goalkeeper).

It will be hard, not to say impossible, for any of these four to break into the main squad this season, given Schuster's track record with the four he took along to Irdning last year (Adrián, Bueno, Granero and De la Red). However, it will be a chance for the coach to see whether any can be called upon as substitutes for injury, or in the less-regarded Copa del Rey. One, Dani Parejo, has been the subject of much transfer speculation from the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and even Barcelona, but his likely destination is a season's loan to Getafe, much like De la Red last year.

The rest of the players joining these four youngsters on the plane to Austria on Monday are: Dudek, Codina, Torres, Salgado, Cannavaro, Pepe, Diarra, Guti, Baptista, Robben, Sneijder, Javi García, Raúl, Higuaín, Van Nistelrooy, Saviola and Soldado. Casillas, Ramos, De la Red and Metzelder have an extra week's holiday following their appearance in last month's European Championship final and will join their team-mates next Monday (28th July). Marcelo, Drenthe and Gago, are due to join their Olympic national squads to compete in Beijing, and are scheduled return to Madrid at the end of August (barring any of them being transferred out or loaned, of course).

Robinho, who was also called up to the Brazil Olympic squad, is reportedly suffering from a groin injury that was discovered during this morning's preseason medical check-up. The club has therefore written to the Brazilian federation asking for him to be released. Whether this is an excuse to keep him close at hand while contract renewal negotiations (or talks with Chelsea over a possible transfer) take place, remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

League fixtures announced

The league fixture list for the 2008-2009 season was announced today with a tough first tie for Real Madrid, away to Deportivo La Coruña on August 31st. Real have lost on their last 5 visits to the Riazor stadium and have not actually won there since 1991, a less than stellar record.

The Spanish supercup fixtures have been confirmed to take place on August 17th, at the Mestalla and the following Sunday, at the Bernabéu. Other league highlights include a visit to Barcelona on December 14th, sandwiched between two difficult home ties with Sevilla and Valencia and the Atlético - Real Madrid derby on October 19th. Newly promoted Málaga, Numancia and Sporting Gijón get to grips with Real on November 9th, September 14th and September 24th respectively.

The whole shebang ends on May 31st with a visit to Osasuna, at the Reyno de Navarra, coincidentally, where Real won the title last season.

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Monday, 14 July 2008

Preseason kicks off

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Another season starts this Monday when those Real Madrid players without an exemption for international duty over the summer meet up in Madrid for the start of the preseason. This first week will consist of rest, relaxation and 'team building' at the exclusive resort of Vale do Lobo in the Portuguese Algarve. The players will be accompanied by their families. Missing from the squad will be European champions Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Rubén de la Red, as well as finalist Metzelder. Marcelo, Robinho, Gago and Drenthe will not join the squad until the end of August, as they will be representing Brazil, Argentina and the Netherlands in the Olympic games in Beijing.

The following Monday, the team will fly out to their usual Austrian preseason base at Irdning, where they will play at least one friendly (against LASK Linz on the 27th July) during their 10-day stay.

Real Madrid will take part in the Emirates Cup on August 2nd (against Hamburg) and August 3rd (against the hosts, Arsenal) in London, before flying across the Atlantic to Colombia for a money-earning friendly against Independiente de Santa Fé in Bogotá. Next on the calendar is a tie in Germany against Eintrach Frankfurt, Real's opponents in the famous 1960 European Cup final at Hapmden Park which finished 7-3 to Real (with 4 goals from the legendary Puskas and 3 from the no-less legendary Di Stefano).

It's then back to Spain for the first trophy of the season, the Spanish Supercup against Copa del Rey winners Valencia. The away tie in Valencia will take place on the weekend of the 16-17 August, with the return leg on the following weekend at the Bernabéu. The final game of the preseason, as is traditional, will be the Santiago Bernabéu trophy, which will feature Sporting Portugal as Real's opponents.

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Thursday, 10 July 2008

Real's most valuable asset

Often, when looking at a club's assets, one tends to concentrate on the players, the ground, sometimes on the manager and technical staff. Rarely do we look closely at those people who actually run the club. And in Real's case that is not president Ramón Calderón.

Four years ago, when Florentino Pérez was still president of Real Madrid and pursuing his galáctico policy, the club's then director of marketing, José Ángel Sánchez, realised that he could get a 20-fold return on his investment by signing David Beckham from Manchester United. It has been this man's vision that has put Real Madrid top of the Forbes list of football clubs by annual revenue. Calderón has not only kept Sánchez in charge of marketing and branding at the club, he has given him additional responsibilities and the catch-all title of general executive director. Everyone reports to him, from marketing to finance, even the technical area when it comes to player transfers and contracts.

Real Madrid may be about to lose this man.

Valencia's major shareholder, Juan Soler, today agreed to hand over the running of the club to Juan Villalonga, former chairman of Telefónica, Spain's main telecom operator. This is seen as Soler's last chance to halt the financial decline his club has seen over the past few years. Villalonga knows Sánchez from his time at Telefónica, but what must really have impressed him is his work at building the Real Madrid brand over the last few years and now it looks like he has convinced him to repeat the performance at Valencia (as of yesterday evening, Real Madrid were refusing to make a statement on the matter).

In a recent lecture on marketing in football, Sánchez argued that turning a football club into a brand is no different from any other product: the marketing plan needs to recognise the brand's values, its differentiating factors, and it must know its target audience to understand the potential demand. Sponsorship deals must evolve from simple advertising to a partnership between both parties. All these strategies serve to turn the club into a growing brand with significant financial returns over and above sporting success.

Losing Sánchez at this point may cost Real Madrid far more in the long term than the sale or purchase of any player, irrespective of their value in the marketplace.

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Monday, 7 July 2008

Waiting for Cristiano

The whole of Real Madrid's transfer policy for the summer is predicated on what happens in the Cristiano Ronaldo saga, according to Ramón Calderón. Not that this is surprising: if the figures of 90 million euros or thereabouts are to be believed, it's clear Real will find it hard to make any decisions on what happens to other players, whether incoming or outgoing, until this is resolved. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this is bad for the club's planning for the new season and bad for players' morale, so the longer it drags on the worse it will be.

Ramón Calderón is of a different mind, however, and seems willing to wait, perhaps all summer. To Marca on Saturday he accepted that time is working for Real Madrid and against Manchester United: "theoretically we still have time, two months until the end of August, as long as Manchester United get in touch with Real Madrid to negotiate. Ronaldo said he would like to play for us, that it was his dream to come to Real Madrid, but the player's wishes cannot be realised without Manchester United's agreement".

Calderón seems to be doing the rounds of the media to keep the pressure on United. While in London over the weekend to attend the Wimbledon men's singles final, he replied to a question from The Sun on whether he would put any money on Cristiano joining Real with "I would bet. If a player wants to leave it is difficult to keep him. It is the same for me. If I have a player who wants to go somewhere else, we let them go".

Separately, to As, he gave some hints on what Real's negotiating position vis-à-vis a transfer price for the Portuguese winger would be: "Zidane cost 75 million euros at the age of 29. If Zidane, who was the best player in the World, cost that much in 2001, then it seems logical that for Ronaldo, who is significantly younger, you could now pay 5 or 10 million euros more. That would be fair, wouldn't it?".

The player himself travelled to Amsterdam today to undergo surgery on his ankle. This is expected to keep him out of action for approximately six weeks, which begs the question, why wait that long? Portugal was dumped out of Euro 2008 nearly three weeks ago. Some reports suggest that it was at United's suggestion to delay surgery and see how his condition would develop, but one can't help but speculate whether it was at all influenced by the potential negotiations with Real Madrid.

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Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Robinho looks to Chelsea

Robinho, chosen by the readers of this blog as Real Madrid's best player of last season is reportedly unhappy at being considered as a possible makeweight in the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. In a statement to Brazilian sports site Globoesporte his agent, Wagner Ribeiro said that both he and the player were unhappy at this "undervaluation as an athlete. Robinho is as good or better than Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid had won the Champions League I have no doubt that Robinho would be considered the World's best player"

Ribeiro then added that he had spoken to Frank Arnesen (Chelsea's chief scout) and two of his advisors by telephone and that they had expressed to him a desire to try to temp Robinho to join the London club. Though he mentioned no figures, the sum of 35 million euros has been doing the rounds of various Spanish and Brazilian media. "Robinho has to return to Madrid on the 14th of July. I will go with him some time before that date, I'm not yet sure when, to see how things will end", Ribeiro concluded.

If Robinho moves to London, he will rejoin former Brazil and Portugal manager "Big Phil" Scolari, who has already secured his first signing for the club in the form of former Barcelona midfielder Deco. Frankly, if the reported numbers are correct, then Real would be crazy to spend more than twice the amount on Cristiano Ronaldo than they are likely to get for Robinho.

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