Barcelona, Messi help hide Real Madrid’s surprisingly quiet summer as they prepare to defend title
Lionel Messi. Messi. Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann and the switcheroo they didn't do. Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi. Pepe Castro. Sergio Ramos (talking about Messi). Spain. And, finally: Messi. That's one list.
Here's another: Luis Suarez. Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi. And Messi. Martin Odegaard. Barcelona clear-out. Messi. Spain. Messi. Messi. Ansu Fati. Messi.
Yes, those are the front pages of the sports papers in the days following Bayern Munich's Champions League win. Not just any front pages, either: the front pages of those dailies normally aligned to Real Madrid. The first list is Marca, the second AS — as good an illustration as there is that on the day that a new season was supposed to begin in Spain, the one team that hasn't really been in the spotlight is the champions.
This summer, Madrid have done something Madrid don't do: they've gone kind of unnoticed. Instead, one man — and one club — has dominated the agenda, even before the European Cup final. Messi was the topic of conversation on the front pages then, too.
Over the past few days, ahead of La Liga's opening weekend, Marca's covers have been dedicated to Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo potentially being united at Juventus, motor racing driver Carlos Sainz, Ramos, Saul and Eden Hazard. At AS, the last two have been Hazard and Luka Modric. But those are the unusual ones, a hint perhaps of some normality returning. Of the last 32 covers of AS and Marca, Madrid have been the theme in just four and three respectively.
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If a tree falls in the forest and all that, perhaps, only this isn't just about the noise, nor is it solely a question of the huge shadow that the Messi case cast over everything else (and, naturally enough, there was a certain glee driving the capital's coverage of the crisis in Catalonia). There are other reasons too. Try these, for starters:
The fact that Atletico Madrid and Barcelona played later than Madrid, their Champions League campaign ending first. The tranquility with which that Real defeat against Manchester City was met, calmness coming perhaps with the league title. And what came next: Atletico's best ever chance to win it (or so they said) slipping through their fingers, although that was a four-day thing soon silenced. Sevilla winning the Europa League. The enormity of Barcelona's crisis. Eight goals conceded against Bayern, for goodness sake.
Then there's the fact that, while the season starts this weekend — a day later than it was supposed to because, well, Spanish football things — Real Madrid don't. Nor do Atletico, Barcelona or Sevilla. Or Elche, actually. This is a false start, with little sense of build-up, and little need until the final days, to thrust Madrid back onto the front page. It's just about happening now and next weekend when they begin — a week ahead of the rest — Madrid will certainly dominate. Odegaard, facing his former club, Real Sociedad, will probably be front and centre.
Then there's something even more basic and more significant, reflected in the Norwegian midfielder accounting for the only two covers AS gave Madrid in a month. It's not a lack of noise — although some things have gone unnoticed, taking shelter behind Messi, and there's something to be said for analysing the sometimes real way that storylines are created and inflated, and how those impact upon reality, conditioning everything — this is a lack of news. That tree hasn't fallen at all.
There's something boringly normal about Real Madrid, not all that much happening. There haven't even been any friendlies nor big summer tours. The manager is the same and the team is the same. They've just quietly, almost too quietly, got back to work. The same men on the same mission.
That's not to say nothing at all has changed. There have been departures, and there may yet be more. James Rodriguez has gone to Everton, Dani Ceballos has gone on loan (again) to Arsenal, Achraf Hakimi is at Inter Milan. Oscar Rodriguez has signed for Sevilla. Alphonse Areola, loaned in from Paris Saint-Germain, went back to Paris and then on to Fulham. Takefusa Kubo is on loan at Villarreal and with a month left in the transfer window, Sergio Reguilon will probably be sold, while they would love to find a way to get Gareth Bale out. (Good luck with that).
All of which amounts to quite a few players but it is no major clear-out, there will be almost no impact and it's certainly no revolution.
The temptation might have been to keep some of them, Achraf especially, but between them those players completed just 12 league games as Madrid claimed the title. Of the players who left, only James and Bale were even at Madrid last season: Ceballos was at Arsenal, Reguilon at Sevilla, Kubo at Mallorca, Oscar at Leganes, Hakimi at Borussia Dortmund. By the end they were effectively gone, too: they checked out ages ago, not now. It is legitimate to think that their departures would change nothing except the balance sheet.
As for arrivals, Odegaard is the only really significant new member of the squad, returning on loan a year early — hence his presence on the front pages. That said, Alvaro Odriozola's return might provide backup for Dani Carvajal at full-back, while Andriy Lunin is an able deputy for Thibaut Courtois.
Just as importantly, nor is there any urgency to sign anyone, and everyone knows that. Go back to those papers for a moment: it is not just that Madrid do not intend to sign; there haven't even been rumours that they will. There is a month left of the window, but this isn't a case of them putting off doing the deals until the end; it is more that there are no deals to be done.
Madrid do not plan to sign anyone. And while some grow impatient and everyone wants new faces, while a lot of fans seem to like the market more than the matches, stability is supposed to be something to aspire to. There may be doubts in Madrid's case, but there's something in that idea too.
The Man City defeat exposed some weaknesses — there is a reason that Odegaard's loan deal was ended so soon afterwards — and Madrid were not perfect league champions by any means. Who knows, they may not have been champions at all but for the pandemic and Barcelona's implosion. They were certainly pretty unusual champions, a team that got virtually no contribution from their four most expensive players, including their two most costly signings ever and four of the all-time top six: Bale, Hazard, Luka Jovic and Rodriguez cost €336 million for an average of 8.75 games and 1.5 goals.
They were also quite old champions: Modric turned 35 this week, Ramos is 34, Marcelo and Karim Benzema are 32, Toni Kroos is 30. Some renewal felt necessary then, but they didn't get it: of their new signings last season, only Ferland Mendy, who played two thirds of the league games, was a regular. And yet, here's the bottom line: still they won the league.
Just as there is at Barcelona now, a year ago there was talk of a necessary revolution at Madrid. Twelve months on (well, 14) there's still a need to make changes, but they do so from a position of relative strength. Atletico Madrid have been inactive, too — although they still pursue the striker they have lacked for years in which they found that even Diego Costa wasn't Diego Costa — no one knows what will happen with Barcelona and while Sevilla have improved, they have a lot of ground to make up.
More to the point, Madrid may feel that most of the solutions are already there, for one more season at least.
There are flaws — there is no back up for Casemiro, say, in defensive midfield, or for Benzema up front — but if contributions were limited last season, at least they were multiple: 21 different men scored league goals, with Eder Militao and Brahim Díaz the only outfield players who failed to do so. Besides, there are new pieces to refresh this. To give the clearest example: if the midfield three need rotating and rejuvenating, Fede Valverde and Odegaard await their chance.
Perhaps it is overly optimistic, but even underachievement can be seen through a positive prism, the promise of improvement; if the talent is not questioned, the only way is up. Well, that's the theory at least.
Recent reports in Belgium suggest that Hazard actually cost Madrid €160m. If so, that's €10m per league game. (Oh, and €160m per goal.) It was striking, in fact, how little spotlight there was on him last year at a time when Griezmann and Felix found themselves under fierce scrutiny and facing furious criticism despite better seasons. Yet while the debate is finally starting in earnest now, with fresh questions being asked about Hazard's fitness and commitment once more, it is legitimate for Madrid to assume that they will get more from him than last season. The same may be true of Jovic, who knows? And it is surely true of Marco Asensio, who only returned to fitness at the very end — and did so with an immediate impact.
The biggest doubt may be whether Benzema can score more than 20 goals again. Others, surely, will step up. If quiet improvement can come away from the glare, with maturity and age, it is likely that there will be greater contributions from Rodrygo and Vinicius, too.
There will have to be: last season, Madrid's second top scorer was Ramos, one of the very few men to take a front page from Messi this summer after he got two more from Spain. “False Nine,” they called him and he, like the rest of them, is still around as Madrid quietly prepare for what they hope will be their first title defence in over a decade.
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