Real Madrid's fitness coach might be their most important signing
As preseason goes by and Real Madrid apparently stick to their "Bales y Carvajales" policy, the most relevant signing of the summer for Zinedine Zidane's team has gone under the radar.
Hired from Olympique de Lyon, Italian fitness coach Antonio Pintus has the huge task of getting Real Madrid ready for a very long season. While doing that, Pintus also has to make sure that he fights one of the squad's biggest issues during these last two seasons: the injury plague.
A detailed list of the shocking volume of muscular injuries suffered by Real Madrid players would take a few blog posts. Let's just say that whoever managed the club since 2014 -- be him Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez (http://www.espnfc.com/real-madrid/story/2678780/rafa-benitez-defends-real-madrid-club-doctor) or Zidane himself -- had to grow accustomed to miss at least a couple of starters for each match of the season, including the most important ones.
Injuries to key players such as Marcelo, Luka Modric or Cristiano Ronaldo at crucial junctures of the last two seasons were only drops in an ocean of muscular issues. Almost every player in the squad had to sit out for several matches, as what at first seemed like pure back luck progressively turned out to be a question of poor fitness preparation and even worse recovery treatments.
With regards to the latter, in January 2015 the squad went up in arms against the club's physician, Dr. Jesus Olmo. The doctor had fired two of the most experienced physios in the club and according to the players, he had missed the signs of a few niggling injuries to Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa that became worse due to the lack of treatment.
After that, each player has made their own decision regarding post-match treatments, with the club looking the other way as players hire their own physios. Skipper Ramos and Karim Benzema, for instance, have been receiving treatment from Pedro Chueca, one of the physios fired by Olmo. After all the turmoil, Ronaldo has included a clause in his new contract that allows him to choose his own physiotherapist.
Now that the players seem content with making their own arrangements, Zidane looks keen on addressing the fitness part, probably the most important one to avoid muscular injuries. He brought in Pintus, someone he knew well since his own time as a player with Juventus, where the Italian prepared a squad that was extremely imposing in physical terms.
Is Pintus Real Madrid's answer to Atletico de Madrid's Profesor Oscar Ortega? Simeone's fitness coach has built his legend with impressive skill to keep a short squad in shape for nine months, as well as helping injured players recover in incredibly short periods.
As if that wasn't enough, the way former players such as Zidane or Gianluca Vialli (Chelsea) or Didier Deschamps (Monaco) keep asking for his services when they coach teams is an excellent sign.
In the first few training sessions, most players have felt the difference between Pintus and previous fitness coaches the hard way. For instance, Rui Faria, who worked with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, preferred to train the physical side of their players while doing exercises with the ball. Pintus, in a more traditional approach, insists on different running tests and plenty of abdominal series before getting to touch the ball, and finishes each session with another set of running series.
When he took over Real Madrid's bench in January 2016, Zidane thought the team lacked spark. He then started a sort of preseason training, taking advantage of the benign calendar at the beginning of the year. But it's clear that this approach was far from ideal; now, the Frenchman and his brand new fitness coach can plan for the full season with enough time to prevent problems in midseason.
When the Real Madrid supporter already half expects that physically fragile players such as Benzema or Modric will be missed for a sizable part of the season, the arrival of a respected fitness authority like Pintus brings new hope. And if the Italian's work means that the club can count on its key players for most of the season, his signing will become incredibly helpful for both Zidane and the team.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.