With a little over two weeks of the transfer window remaining Real Madrid have already completed some astute business.
The signing of Toni Kroos -- whose contract with Bayern was due to expire next summer -- was something of a bargain by the standards of the Bernabeu club. James Rodriguez came at a premium largely because of his World Cup heroics. But Monaco were willing to sell and the Colombian's eventual price tag reflected the Ligue 1 club's recent aversion to burning the books. Had Monaco decided to play hardball, Real could have been looking at another outlay in the Cristiano Ronaldo-Gareth Bale bracket.
Since Brazil, James' stock has risen as swiftly as Viagra's after they hired Pele for an ad campaign. But there is one glaring gap in a squad worth somewhere around half-a-billion euros by most estimates: a backup striker to Karim Benzema. When the France international motioned to the bench during the European Super Cup after a penalty area tumble, Carlo Ancelotti didn't need to turn his head to scan for a replacement. As things stand, there simply isn't one.
Jese Rodriguez's breakthrough season was cut short by a cruciate injury when the canterano was in full song; five goals in 18 appearances combined with all-round displays that had Vicente del Bosque purring with a view to the World Cup cemented the 21-year-old's place in the first team. The previous flavour of the month, Alvaro Morata, was put on cone duty. Jese is not expected to return to full training until November and other than fellow canterano Raul de Tomas there is little in reserve. Benzema's value to Real Madrid at the moment is at least equal to the fee splurged on James, who represents something of a luxury signing for Carlo Ancelotti -- if the Italian had any say in the transfer in the first place.
Benzema was not instantly adored at the Bernabeu. He was, if anything, about as welcome as a fly in the gazpacho of most Madridistas, who viewed him as slightly the wrong side of lazy. Benzema was definitely not the answer to the waning influence of one Raul Gonzalez Blanco -- who handily had the club branded into his family name.
But Benzema has proved even the hardiest of skeptics very wrong. Since he was signed from Lyon for 30 million euros in the heady summer of 2009, Benzema has seen off the challenges of Raul, Gonzalo Higuain and Morata to make the starting striker's spot his own. In the year he was added to the squad, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were offloaded, while options on Javier Saviola (quite rightly) and Alvaro Negredo (quite wrongly) were not taken up. Not only has Benzema fended off such stellar competition at home, he has also kept his cool in the face of endless speculation over new arrivals.
Florentino Perez staked a lot of his reputation in the transfer market on Benzema, and he has ferociously protected his investment. And Benzema has returned the favour with interest: 111 goals in 235 appearances and an assist rate to rival any in La Liga this summer saw the Frenchman rewarded with a new five-year contract, effectively tying him to the Bernabeu until potentially the end of his career.
But above all, Benzema's understanding with Ronaldo makes Real's front line tick. The sixth sense the pair share is evident when Benzema finds his teammate without even looking. The flicks and tricks are not for show but a means to an end. Bale may well be seeking such a role within the vaunted BBC, but the Welshman is still at the receive ball, look up, find Ronaldo stage. Benzema knows where the Portuguese will be, and Ronaldo can sense his teammate's intentions before most defenders.
These kind of partnerships are almost impossible to buy. They simply flourish with time and training. But going into the new season, Real could do with a backup plan.
Having missed out on Shane Long, the name of Radamel Falcao will be bandied about. But as any Atletico fan would note, with some satisfaction no doubt, the Colombian would not fit seamlessly into Real's lightning counter-attacking game. His mobility in the final third is questionable and his work rate would swiftly allay initial excitement about another big-name shirt-shifter. But Ligue 1 is arguably the most fertile ground for a bargain in the current market, as Newcastle United well know. France's most expensive signing of the summer, David Luiz, accounts for PSG's entire outlay so far. Though the capital giants did somehow persuade Toulouse to part with World Cup defender Serge Aurier on a loan deal. Monaco have spent just 24 million, despite the James bounty, including the capture of Toulouse defender Aymen Abdennour, at 13 million euros the most expensive domestic transfer to date.
Ligue 1 seems ripe for the picking, and there are plenty of candidates for a berth at Real, not least want-away PSG striker Edinson Cavani. A lot of Real's transfer activity between now and September 1, depends on offloading Angel di Maria, whatever the bizarre reasoning at the Bernabeu for doing so might be. PSG pulled out of a deal after balking at Real's fee, although the Argentinean's wage demands were probably a factor, too. Di Maria himself said no dice to Monaco's roll, which was unfortunate for Real's pursuit of Falcao. The Colombian has inexplicably failed "to settle" in the tax haven on wages of 200,000 euros a week. Most would probably manage.
With Jese waiting in the wings, Real doesn't neccesarily need a big-name signing to fill Benzema's boots in the case of injury; enough learned observers concur that the youngster is the real deal. But a European champion, challenging on four fronts (Super Cups aside) and aiming to become the first side since Milan in 1989-90 to retain the European Cup, surely needs more than one striker. Ancelotti has said that James can play across the front line, while Bale and Ronaldo can fill in. But Real's strength lies in the speed with which the flanks can move the ball forward; moving Bale or Ronaldo inside will only curb that outlet and James is the anointed successor to Di Maria on the left.
Toulouse is clearly in a selling mood and Wissam ben Yedder could be added as a mobile forward with an eye for goal and the agility to keep up with Ronaldo and Bale -- and for a pittance. In-limbo former Marseille striker Loic Remy is after a gig despite scoring 14 on loan at Newcastle last season. QPR insists that he's happy to stay -- unless a Champions League club comes calling of course. Alexandre Lacazette of Benzema's alma mater Lyon is also a decent option.
Shopping in Ligue 1 worked out when Real signed Benzema and after a summer of big spending a little could prove to be a lot if Ancelotti suddenly finds himelf without his influential No. 9 -- especially if Monaco and PSG don't feel like playing ball over their prize assets.