Madrid's finalists set for Bernabeu exit
Real Madrid is a club that demands excellence, but not even a World Cup winner's medal is likely to save two Blancos midfielders from the Bernabeu exit door this summer.
Los Merengues were one of the most heavily represented clubs in the tournament, with 12 players from seven nations in Brazil, but the only two that remain ahead of Sunday's final at the Maracana are the two most likely to be plying their trade away from the club next season.
Sami Khedira is a likely starter for Germany as they look to sew a fourth star on their shirt, while Angel Di Maria is facing a race against time to recover from a thigh injury and feature for Argentina after playing a big role in helping his nation get to the final in Rio.
It has come as somewhat of a surprise for the majority of Madridistas, therefore, to see both heavily linked with moves elsewhere post-Brazil with the pair seemingly not part of manager Carlo Ancelotti, or president Florentino Perez's, plans for next season. Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain are reported to be chasing Di Maria with Arsenal understood to be keen on Khedira.
On Sunday, one of the two will add football's most sought-after prize to a UEFA Champions League medal within the space of a few months. Impressive performances on the biggest stage of all usually catch the attention of the biggest clubs in the world, but Real Madrid's mind has seemingly already been made up. The performances of Di Maria and Khedira in the final will only increase price tags that are already very high.
With Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos set to be announced as Madrid's latest signing after Sunday's final, Madrid will only be adding top-class quality to a midfield already the envy of world football. Asier Illarramendi, Di Maria, Isco, Khedira, Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso are already at Ancelotti's disposal and helped Los Merengues to La Decima last season, but with Kroos's arrival, something has to give.
While Khedira has enjoyed a strong World Cup and would undoubtedly add a positive, and different, aspect to Madrid's midfield next season, his departure should be no surprise. The German has one year left on his contract and has reportedly rejected the option of a two-year extension, prompting his club to cash in while they can.
The former Stuttgart man was unfortunate in suffering a knee injury that kept him out of most of last season, but that timing may have been enough to show Ancelotti that his absence was not as crippling as some feared. Luka Modric was all-encompassing in the middle, enjoying a superb campaign, and although Illarramendi did not pull up any trees, he proved capable backup on occasion.
Some may have believed Khedira had a future at Madrid when he completed an early return from his injury to start in last season's Champions League final, this despite Ancelotti repeating in the weeks before the match that youngster Illarramendi was in pole position. A blow to the young Basque midfielder it may have been, but it was a one-off match and Khedira's experience was to be the winner. In the long run, the former Real Sociedad man will get his chance to shine.
There are some indications that Madrid may switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation next season and that would see Alonso and Modric pair up as the holding two, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos to support lone striker Karim Benzema. Even if either Alonso or Modric were absent, Illarramendi would be more comfortable stepping in with someone alongside him. Another learning curve for a player Madrid hope will ultimately replace Alonso in the long run.
The departure of Di Maria would be the bigger surprise, but given Kroos's arrival it is only a matter of time -- the Argentine would not be happy playing a bit part in proceedings again. His disappointment in being substituted in a Copa del Rey match against lowly Xativa, as well as a controversial gesture when he came off in the Liga clash against Celta Vigo set a rocky road with the Madrid management last season.
Now, although undoubtedly being impressed by Di Maria's performances in Brazil -- on Friday he was shortlisted for the World Cup Golden Ball award -- Madrid will see it as a golden opportunity to cash in. The figures quoted have been nearly double what Los Blancos are likely to have to pay for Kroos, and they will see that as a good bit of business.
The 26-year-old was brilliant in the second half of the season for Ancelotti, arguably being Madrid's best player during that spell. He was man of the match in the Champions League final and produced the stunning run and shot that eventually led to Bale's crucial extra-time goal. He shone in the Copa del Rey final, too, scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Barcelona. Big performances in big games were his strength, perhaps knowing it was the best shop window to outshine Ronaldo and the rest.
He finished the season with the most assists in La Liga, too: 17. That's four more than his nearest rival in Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas. Most of them came in a blistering second half of the campaign.
It looks as though there will be no place for him in the new-look Madrid, however. Sticking with 4-3-3 would see Kroos slot in in his place, while a 4-2-3-1 would leave Alonso and Modric in the middle, with Di Maria once again seeing his time on the pitch limited, despite being almost undroppable at the back end of last season.
There will be disappointment with the possible departure of two of this World Cup's stars from the Bernabeu, but with Kroos' imminent arrival, the decision by Madrid to let the pair go is not unexpected.
Los Blancos will miss two talented players, but their loss is someone else's gain.