Real Madrid crisis? Plus: Breaking down Falcao deal, credit to Mario Balotelli, Barcelona's new star, more
It's not the worst meltdown he has ever seen -- Istanbul, alas, will live with him forever -- but it's not far off. And in some ways for Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, it's a fitting allegory for Real Madrid's summer. It too began with immense promise, only to careen out of control.
On Sunday, Madrid traveled to take on Real Sociedad, a club with an embattled manager, Jagoba Arrasate, and an unhappy fan base. Half an hour in, it looked as if we were heading toward a tennis score. The visitors raced to a 2-0 lead through Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale, and hit the woodwork to boot. They kept the ball, moved it splendidly and created chance after chance. Cristiano Ronaldo was injured, but Bale ran rampant in his place, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos moving the ball crisply behind him.
Somewhere Real Madrid president Florentino Perez must have chuckled to himself. What's the fuss? So Xabi Alonso's gone ... Kroos can do what he does. And really, is Cristiano that important when I have James?
And then the wheels came off. The home side struck twice to level things up before halftime and then notched two more in the second half, going on to win 4-2. Iker Casillas described his team's performance as "horrible."
Ancelotti noted that they simply failed to control the game defensively, adding that "something has to change, and it will change."
Madrid's perennial bugbear -- poor defending on set pieces -- surfaced again. And while picking on Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo and Casillas in those situations has become an international pastime, it's more than justified in this game. Yet they're not the only culprits.
Two goals down, Real Sociedad went for it, coming out of their shell and committing men forward. And what they found was a midfield that threw up about much resistance as a papier-mache wall trying to stop a Hummer.
- Train: Bad night for Real Madrid
Modric's scurrying and hard work is useful -- actually, invaluable -- when he's alongside a proper holding midfielder adept at clogging passing lanes and reading opposition movements (in other words, Alonso). But when he's next to Kroos, a fine player whose first instinct is to advance (whether himself or the ball) and who is reactive rather than proactive defensively, he's far too easily overrun.
Reality, however, is that this feels a little bit like 2003, when Claude Makelele was let go. The Frenchman was in some ways a synthesis of Di Maria (hard-working, underappreciated) and Alonso (essential to the team's balance on the pitch, the wrong side of 30). You may recall what happened after his departure. Madrid won nothing for the next four years. It was the longest barren spell in the club's history.
Obviously, it wasn't just Makelele going that caused the drought. And clearly it doesn't mean the 2014-15 campaign will go the same way. There's enough talent here to salvage it. But you do wonder to what degree some folks learn from the mistakes.
Can anyone work out what Van Gaal is up to at Manchester United?
The ways of Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal are infinite. He asks that you trust him, not that you understand him. And that's a good thing, because it's tough to understand what side he's building. The scoreless draw at Burnley wasn't as poor as some suggested; there was some decent interplay from the front three of Juan Mata, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, while Angel Di Maria spread the ball nicely on his debut.
United's new signings -- Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Di Maria, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo -- have played a combined 135 minutes of league football this year. That entitles Van Gaal to ask for some time.
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It's tough to see how all these pieces fit or why he's so wed to the back three (which, again, looked iffy at Burnley). Just as it's unclear where Blind will fit, assuming Shaw is the long-term wing-back, Rojo the left-sided centre-back and some combination of Herrera, Di Maria and either Darren Fletcher, Mata or Michael Carrick in midfield.
Van Gaal asked for time. He'll get it. The omens, for the most part, don't look good right now. But all that will be forgotten if, as promised, after three months everything clicks the way Van Gaal promises it will.
Breaking down the Falcao deal
Speaking of United, the saga of Radamel Falcao came to an end on transfer deadline day when he agreed to a loan move from Monaco to United. When you take a step back and consider matters, he's had a remarkable nine months: injured ahead of the World Cup, a furious -- but ultimately fruitless -- rehab in an effort to make it to Brazil and then a summer being flogged around Europe.
Throw in strong flirtations with Real Madrid (including a tweet which was either then deleted or which, as Falcao maintains, never existed and was Photoshopped all along) and Manchester City (as of Sunday night, they looked in the driver's seat before they realized they could not make it work and still meet the terms of their settlement with UEFA for breaching financial fair play parameters last year, which limit net spend to $79 million) and a last-minute withdrawal from the Monaco squad to play Lille on Saturday.
Falcao's loan is through June, and United will reportedly pay Monaco $20 million for the privilege. If things work out and United want to keep him, that $20 million will become a down payment on whatever fee they agree next year. If he doesn't stick around, then from United's perspective, that $20 million is gone. What he'll be worth a year from now -- to United or anyone else -- is anyone's guess. But it's telling that Monaco were willing to take $52.5 million to sell him outright this summer, when they paid nearly $80 million for him a year ago.
Details remain sketchy at this time regarding Falcao's enormous contract. He has four years left at $24 million a season, but that's after-tax, because Colombian nationals residing in Monaco are not subject to income tax. If United were to pick up the full tab for his take-home salary (given that all UK residents must pay tax), it would cost them a whopping $43 million a season, which, if you like your numbers in pounds per week, equates to -- deep breath -- a shade under half a million pounds a week. That's right: he'd be making twice as much as any United player.
Logic suggests that's untenable. Monaco must be footing part of the bill; indeed, a chunk of the $20 million loan fee is likely going to that. Just how much Monaco are paying will be a function of Ed Woodward's negotiating skills.
So what happens if Falcao does well and United choose to buy him? Will they be stuck with that crazy contract?
Probably not. The fact that a permanent deal with Manchester City was in place suggests he was willing to take some kind of pay cut, perhaps in exchange for a slightly longer deal, because frankly, it's hard to see City agreeing to pay him that kind of money either.
It's a curious situation for Falcao to be in. No matter how well he does at United, he knows that a year from now he'll almost certainly have to take a pay cut, either to stay at Old Trafford or move elsewhere. Unless, of course, he wants to go back to a Monaco club that seems intent on flogging all their top players and cost-cutting furiously after the excesses of recent seasons.
Xabi Alonso's instant impact at Bayern
He walks on the pitch having completed a grand total of zero training sessions with his new teammates and, 67 minutes later, walks off it looking more Bavarian than Philipp Lahm. That's Xabi Alonso. That's quality.
Did Bayern manager Pep Guardiola perform some kind of Vulcan mind-meld with the former Real Madrid man? It looked that way given the ease with which he slipped into Pep's passing mechanisms on Saturday against a Schalke side that raised the barricades.
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Never mind all that fretting about where he'll fit in once Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger return and when Lahm will no longer have to do a shift at full-back. Or whether he's taking minutes away from the youngsters, Sebastian Rode and Gianluca Gaudino. Alonso showed he's a guy you can drop in when you need him and he won't miss a beat. He doesn't need to be a week-in, week-out starter. In fact, given his injuries, it's probably best if he's not in there every week. But when called upon, he can be a leader and a difference-maker.
The only blight on Bayern's day was that they left two points on the pitch at the Aufschalke as a result of Benni Howedes' equalizer. But when you consider the positives -- including Robert Lewandowski getting off the mark -- it wasn't a bad day. At all.
Man City struggles at home again
Last season, the Etihad was a veritable fortress for Manchester City, as the champions took 52 of a possible 57 points at home. Their first two outings in their friendly confines left a little to be desired. They failed to impose themselves against Liverpool in the first half this past Monday (but nevertheless made their superior quality count in the second half and won 3-1). And on Saturday they fell to Stoke 1-0.
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The game followed a predictable script, with City bossing possession and a well-organized Stoke sitting deep and looking to hit on the counter. It's what City face most weeks, albeit with worse execution. But the home side's passing was neither crisp nor creative. And, more worryingly, there were far too many scares when Stoke went on the break, as both Martin Demichelis and Vincent Kompany had rocky afternoons.
That City should have had a penalty for Erik Pieters' boot on Yaya Toure's knee doesn't really change matters (Stoke had a penalty appeal of their own). It may be a World Cup hangover and nothing more. But it's clear we have yet to see the best of City.
Bielsa, Marseille dominant
Not much can match the sight of a Marcelo Bielsa team in full flow. That's what we saw Saturday as Marseille demolished Nice 4-0. His 3-4-3 is top-heavy, demanding and brutal on his defenders, but when it works, the opposition have no clue what hit them.
Even Pierre-Andre Gignac, hardly the most mobile of centre-forwards, seems to be flourishing under Bielsa's capable command. You only wonder where this team could be if they hadn't lost an attacking spark plug like Mathieu Valbuena over the summer.
What did we learn from Everton-Chelsea thriller?
Nine goals in 90 minutes inevitably prompt the question of whether it was a good match or a bad one. Everton and Chelsea turned in a spectacle thanks to some outstanding attacking performances. But we also saw some very poor defending, which is surprising given that both have gifted veteran back fours.
While it was fun to watch, you can bet it was a heck of a lot less enjoyable for the two managers, Roberto Martinez and Jose Mourinho. Just as you can be sure the next training session wasn't that fun for the players, as they necessarily went through a postmortem of what went wrong.
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It's the kind of game that is so all over the place it's tough to draw conclusions because it was so uncharacteristic of the way these two sides play. The one dead certainty Chelsea can take home, though, is that Diego Costa is looking like the Diego Costa we saw through March last year, not the one who turned out at the World Cup.
Barcelona's newest star
Two games, two more gems from La Masia for Barcelona. Last week, it was Munir El Haddadi. This week, Sandro.
But unlike the other home-grown starlets, Sandro represents something Barcelona haven't had for a very long time: an actual, traditional workhorse centre-forward. Barca hadn't played badly before he came on with 20 minutes to go, they just hadn't turned their territorial dominance into goals, or even clear-cut chances (though Lionel Messi did hit the post). Meanwhile, Villarreal, something of a bogey team for the Catalans, was fearsome at the other end, hitting the woodwork twice.
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Sandro's selfless runs and dynamism opened up space where previously there was little. Neymar and Messi took advantage of it. And Sandro's reward was his first Liga goal, after Messi squeezed through a pass from the tightest of angles.
No need to get carried away just yet. But you wonder whether Barca haven't found a guy who can give them an added dimension when they need one. At least until Luis Suarez is ready to return.
Give credit to Mario Balotelli
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli disappointed all those willing him to fail so they could trot out the familiar "I told you sos" on Sunday at White Hart Lane. He probably should have had a hat trick and, if you want to criticize him, it's fair to question his finishing: two poor headers and a horrible 35-yard shot with the keeper out of his goal are not what you expect from him.
What he did provide, though, was plenty of hard work, some excellent interchanges with Daniel Sturridge and the outstanding Raheem Sterling and a legitimate powerful presence in the final third.
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His Liverpool career has lasted all of 61 minutes, after which he was subbed off. Nobody needs to get carried away. But at the very least we know this: he's a tactical fit with Sturridge and Sterling. And when they play like this, they're close to unstoppable. That's more than some gave him (or Liverpool) credit for until very recently.
Attacking future bright for Roma
Roma's 2-0 win over Fiorentina -- apart from confirming that Radja Nainggolan would have more than come in handy for Belgium at the World Cup -- served as a reminder that this team has plenty of depth in the attacking third. The trio of Mattia Destro, Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic may be as gifted as any front three in Serie A this side of Juventus and Napoli. Yet they aren't first choice for manager Rudi Garcia, or at least they weren't this past weekend.
Having plenty of options (they'll be rather well-served in midfield, too, after Kevin Strootman returns) can be a double-edged sword, of course. You need to keep everyone happy and make sure nobody feels stiffed in terms of playing time. That will be the challenge for Garcia, and it will be as important as filling the departed Mehdi Benatia's big boots.