Now or never for Real fringe players
The saying goes that one person's loss is another person's gain, and with Real Madrid missing three influential players for Sunday night's trip to Real Sociedad, there is much to be gained from those on the fringes of Carlo Ancelotti's squad.
Los Blancos will make the trip to San Sebastian without Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, both of whom left the Santiago Bernabeu this week for Manchester United and Bayern Munich, respectively. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo will sit out as he aims to put to bed the fitness problems that have plagued him over recent months ahead of the crucial league fixture against Atletico Madrid on Saturday, September 13.
In one fell swoop Ancelotti is without arguably three players who were the most crucial in his Champions League-winning machine last season. Luckily for the Italian, he has a squad blessed with depth and talent and players who are licking their lips for a chance to prove they're ready for regular first-team action this season -- and not for the Bernabeu exit door.
Asier Illarramendi, Isco, James Rodriguez and Sami Khedira are the quartet of players who are ready to gain from Madrid's losses this week. While Rodriguez has been a regular in Los Blancos' opening matches of the season, there were still doubts over his longer-term involvement as a starter while Alonso was sticking around. Now the Colombian World Cup star could be more crucial to Ancelotti's much-changed starting eleven this season than many imagined.
For Illarramendi, Isco and Khedira, their chance to impress is now. All three had been earmarked as possible movers away from the Spanish capital this season. Illarramendi had been linked with a loan move back to the Basque country, but with Athletic Bilbao, and not his former club Real Sociedad, while German World Cup-winner Khedira's destination seemed likely to be the Premier League, especially after Alonso moved to Munich.
With just over a day before the summer transfer window closes, the trio could remain at the Bernabeu. Any of the three could be starters at Anoeta on Sunday night and Ancelotti name-dropped Illarramendi when asked about the impact Alonso's departure may have on his squad. The young Spaniard was brought in for big money last summer to eventually replace Alonso in Madrid's starting line-up and he'll have no better chance than now.
While Luka Modric and Toni Kroos both have the capabilities to help out defensively, both lean more towards an attacking impetus. Alonso was the player that made Madrid fluid and organised and neither of the aforementioned players fully bring those qualities to the team. Illarramendi, on the other hand, has that mindset. Although he failed to sufficiently impress Ancelotti enough to become Alonso's successor (the Italian preferred Khedira in the Champions League final when Alonso was suspended), he is the natural replacement for Alonso in the long-term, and if Ancelotti doesn't use him now, he'll never use him.
James is expected to replace Ronaldo on the left side of Los Blancos' three-pronged attack after his impressive showing there against Atleti in the Spanish Super Cup, which leaves Isco likely battling it out with Illarramendi and Khedira for a starting role. Ancelotti's reference to the former Malaga man being able to play the No.9 role in Saturday's pre-match press conference hints at Illarramendi, or Khedira, being the preferred choice in the middle alongside Kroos and Modric. Both took part in training at Valdebebas.
With the transfer window about to shut, it is the start of a new cycle for Ancelotti just months after seeing his side lift La Decima. It took months to find balance in his squad last term and now he's out to achieve the same thing again. It was no coincidence that the return of Alonso from injury and the adaptation of Di Maria into a midfield three last season coincided with Madrid's resurgence in La Liga. After a sluggish start, the return of that pair helped Ancelotti's men overturn a deficit that eventually saw them top the league after Christmas. It may be no coincidence that Los Blancos' struggle for form at the start of this campaign in their absence.
The Italian hinted that Madrid could still make moves in the transfer market, but if they do, a striker is likely be top of that list. Karim Benzema was one of the few to impress in Madrid's opening league win over Cordoba on Monday and the pressure will be on to shine again in the face of the latest departures. Radamel Falcao's name just won't go away.
Madrid are somewhat fortunate that their probable tinkering and life without Ronaldo, who won the award for UEFA's Best Player in Europe award on Thursday, comes on a weekend they face a Real Sociedad side who have endured a bad start to their own season. The Basque outfit fell to a 1-0 defeat against newly-promoted Eibar at the weekend in their opener and also crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday -- just days after neighbours and rivals Athletic Bilbao book their place in the Champions League group stages.
Confidence will have taken a hit at Anoeta, but Jagoba Arrasate and his men may well look at the visit of the European champions as the perfect opportunity to right their early season wrongs, especially with Madrid somewhat in disarray themselves.
The absence of Ronaldo will be met with delight from La Real but the Portuguese has made the right decision in getting his fitness up to scratch before crucial games against Atleti and Basel in the Champions League. If only he'd have taken a rest sooner. The 29-year-old will be placed on a special training plan by Ancelotti next week and has also been left out of Portugal's squad for their Euro 2016 opener. Atleti, beware.
In the meantime, James will have a golden opportunity to shine and stake a claim for a regular starting role this season. He won't be alone, with Illarramendi, Isco and Khedira looking to take advantage of Madrid's two high-profile departures this week. Their gain could also be Madrid's as Los Blancos look to step up from a lackluster start to the season with the help of fringe players that are eager to impress.