Khedira: Mental resilience a must at Real Madrid
As Sami Khedira is discovering all too quickly, the crushing levels of expectation that go with the honour of working for the modern game's greatest manager and playing for the biggest team in the world are tough to live up to.
At the tender age of 23, this relatively inexperienced professional has been thrust onto the biggest stages in world football over the last couple of years and while his triumphs with Stuttgart and the Germany national team were commendable, the sternest examination of his credentials is now underway.
After an impressive World Cup in South Africa, Khedira now finds himself in the searing heat of the most acute spotlight in European club football, with his each and every pass analysed like never before as he attempts to prove his worth at Real Madrid.
When this particular team fail to perform, as was the case in the 0-0 draw against Levante on Saturday, all involved receive the sort of criticism that could cripple a footballer still finding his feet in a new country, though Khedira appears to be keeping a level head after his first month at the Bernabeu.
"Signing for Real was the easy part," Khedira says as he prepares to line up against Auxerre in the Champions League on Tuesday. "The remaining 99% of the job is to prove I can be effective in La Liga and the Champions League, and that may take some time.
"It feels as if there is so much for me to do: learn Spanish, take on board a new culture, understand the coach's system and win his trust. All this cannot happen overnight, but I'm convinced I am on the right track.
"To succeed at this club, you need to be mentally resilient. The high level of expectation at Real Madrid was one of the first things I noticed when I came to this club. The only goal here is to dominate at home and abroad and nothing else will do. You have to finish first in every competition or this will be viewed as a failure and that's a high target to aim for.
"In Jose Mourinho, we have a coach who exemplifies this mentality and my first few weeks working with him has confirmed he is the ultimate perfectionist. All the titles he has won show that his methods are successful and I have to try and become a better player with his help.
"To be honest, I still find it amazing to be at Real Madrid, so my coach and the fans will understand that it may take some time before I perform at my very best here. I don't lack self-belief, but playing at a club like this will take some getting used to."
Mourinho's comments suggesting Khedira and his Germany colleague Mesut Ozil are struggling to adapt to life at Real Madrid as they grapple with the demands of their new local language brought predictably negative headlines and, on reflection, such publicly expressed concerns were not helpful for a duo trying to make their mark in a foreign league. However, Khedira insists he is determined to give himself every chance to become a success in Spain as he adapts to the demands of La Liga.
"The language issue is something both Mesut and myself are trying to address, but we understand the messages of coach Mourinho perfectly well," he insists. "If there are any problems for us, we can speak English as this is always the dominant language of football.
"It was natural when we agreed to join Real Madrid that there would be a brief period for everything to settle down, and Mesut and myself are not alone in needing this. We have a new coach who will take time to get his message across to the players and we are still attempting to mould together as a team.
"The difficulty at Real Madrid is the supporters and everyone else looking at the club expect instant success and it will not be like that with a new project. Winning every game is not possible when you are at the start of something fresh, but it has to be our target."
Khedira put himself in a perilous position by walking away from his comfortable position as a star at Stuttgart to pursue his Real Madrid dream, with the return of Michael Ballack to the national team set-up meaning his place in the Germany starting line-up is far from assured in the Euro 2012 qualifiers.
"There is always competition and you have to accept it," he says. "I will not be certain of my place at Real Madrid this season and the same is true with the German national team. Michael Ballack is not my only rival as there are plenty of other good quality German midfielders, so no one can take anything for granted.
"The key is to focus on my own form. Without good performances for Real, there is a chance I may slip out of the reckoning, but my aim is to fight for my spot in the team. The World Cup was a great experience and all of us who were in South Africa want to experience more of those emotions."
Khedira admits lady luck has been central to his rapid rise in the last 12 months, as the youngster went from national team outsider at the start of last season to one of Germany's World Cup stars in South Africa, with a dream move to Real Madrid proving the icing on the cake.
"I had a long period out with injury last spring and at one point it looked unlikely that I would make the German squad," he says. "Fortunately, I recovered in time and then got the chance to start when Ballack was ruled out with injury.
"Some would say I was in the right place at the right time, but I would argue that you make your own luck. I was ready to step in and made the most of my opportunity. If I hadn't been up to the mark in South Africa, the Germany coach would not have left me in the team as you have to earn your spot. I deserved to be at the World Cup, I played well and now my career is in a very different place. I'm determined to make the grade at Real Madrid as this is opportunity of a lifetime."
Khedira appreciates meteoric rise with club and country could easily be followed by an equally hasty fall, but this quietly confident young man seems determined to avoid such a fate.