Real Madrid look beyond friendlies
Few tears were shed when Real Madrid exited the International Champions Cup at the hands of Roma.
The reigning European champion might have won the tournament last summer, but despite the pedigree of its participants, the annual United States jaunt is largely a shirt-slinging and autograph-signing expedition -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Football is show business after all, and appealing to a broader base of fans and merchandise purchasers is the bread and butter of the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga. Equally, however, there is no point pretending it's anything other than a knockabout in some admittedly grandiose stadiums.
Carlo Ancelotti noted as much after Francesco Totti's lone strike handed Real Madrid an early ticket back to Europe. "It gives us more time to prepare for the [UEFA] Super Cup [against Sevilla on Aug. 12 in Cardiff, Wales]," the Italian noted with no hint of regret.
Real will also contest the Club World Cup this season, which is another toll on a squad that will be stretched thin as it stands by two domestic competitions and the defence of its Champions League crown; at least Morocco is a handier hop from Dec. 10-20 than previous host nations like Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Having lost to Roma and, on penalties, Inter in the group phase of the ICC, Real have one more match to honour before the serious business begins in the Welsh capital, but the opponent may affect Ancelotti's preparations and those of his players.
Louis van Gaal's resurgent Manchester United, who stuck three past Roma and beat Inter on penalties, are in pole position to contest the final, but with just the group winner progressing, they require a win to hold both Serie A sides at arm's length. After United's last campaign, Van Gaal will be keen to get any kind of silverware under his belt as swiftly as possible.
That leaves Ancelotti with a dilemma: field the kids and risk a third -- and possibly thumping -- defeat or bring out some of the big guns and try to score a psychological victory over an illustrious rival and its celebrated coach? Under competitive circumstances, this matchup is a true European clasico.
Ancelotti's previous lineups suggest something in between. Real's World Cup participants were omitted entirely from the first game while Karim Benzema, Raphael Varane, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez have been excused from the preseason tour entirely. That allowed Ancelotti to run the rule over his youngsters, but it was little more than an exercise in curiosity; most won't be seen again this season, if at all. Raul de Tomas, Omar Mascarell, Diego Llorente, Ruben Sobrino and Derik Osede can vie for an occasional Copa run-out while Alvaro Medran and Marcos Llorente are still registered with Real C.
In the Inter match, just three players who should be considered automatic first-team material started: Gareth Bale, Diego Lopez and Dani Carvajal (purely subjectively, Varane should be elevated to first choice alongside Sergio Ramos this season in place of Pepe, whose form and temperament are not improving, or mellowing, with age).
In Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Roma, the starting lineup looked more familiar, with Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Fabio Coentrao and Luka Modric joining the fray. Still, in searing temperatures, little overexertion was to be expected by either side, although for Real it was not a bad warm-up for the Spanish Super Cup vs. Atletico. Two legs really are too much when one would happily suffice, but the LFP's ears are deaf to such concerns.
Whomever Ancelotti picks on Saturday, it will be an early chance to see how Real react against a formation that won't feature much in La Liga next season but, after the World Cup and following Juventus' success with it over the past few seasons, will do so increasingly on the European stage. Holland and Chile operated to great effect with a fluid 3-5-2 formation in Brazil while Ancelotti has yet to decide whether to stick with the 4-3-3 that served so well last season or revert to a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Kroos, Alonso, Bale, Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Negotiations surrounding Angel di Maria's Real future will also weigh on that consideration as the formation last season was tweaked to accommodate the in-demand Argentina winger. Should he leave -- and it seems increasingly likely that he will, taking Real's bloated midfield into account -- Ancelotti will likely opt for an attacking four.
With Real having scored just one goal from open play in the United States, the return of Ronaldo is another burning issue. The No. 7 is back in training -- doing specific solo work to fully recover from a knee problem -- and may play a part, however briefly, against his former club at the University of Michigan Stadium.
Jibes that Real are a one-man team are ill-judged, but Ronaldo arguably makes them a 12-player outfit when firing on all cylinders, while the effect of such quality signings as Kroos and Rodriguez on the European champions is yet to be discovered; Sevilla will be the first team to truly find out what the 2014-15 Real Madrid can unleash in less than two weeks.
"We are still missing many players," said Ancelotti on Wednesday. "Some are due back on the 1st [August] and some on the 5th. All of them will be ready for the Super Cup. With a full week of training, we will be able to call on all the players for the game. We have had no injury problems, which is the most important thing."