Dani Carvajal deserves more credit as a Real Madrid giant

Think of the stalwarts of this current Real Madrid team and your mind will likely flash to the likes of Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos, maybe even Luka Modric. These players provide the spine of Zinedine Zidane’s side and have done for the best part of the last decade, even more in the case of the former pair.

Dani Carvajal deserves to be mentioned among such company, though. The right back has been at the Santiago Bernabeu for the last seven years, nailing down a starting place in the Real Madrid defence. The Spanish international has been an integral figure for some of the most successful years of the club’s entire history and there’s no sign of any real decline despite some injury troubles in recent seasons.

And yet Carvajal’s contribution is often overlooked. His energy and drive gives Real Madrid a real attacking outlet down the right side, something which is particularly useful at the moment given Los Blancos’ lack of a true right winger. Gareth Bale, of course, could play that role, but the Welshman is currently out of the picture under Zidane. Carvajal brings many of the qualities that an out-and-out winger would.

Zidane recognises just how important a player Carvajal is even if others overlook him. Many expected Achraf Hakimi to challenge the 28-year-old for a starting place next season having enjoyed two extremely successful seasons on loan at Borussia Dortmund. Indeed, the Moroccan is widely seen as one of the brightest youngest full backs in the game at this moment in time.

But Hakimi didn’t even make it back to the Spanish capital at the end of the 2019/20 season before being sold to Inter. This was a show of faith from Zidane in Carvajal. Alvaro Odriozola is another who was bought to provide competition to Carvajal, but was farmed out on loan when it became clear he wasn’t up to the task.

On the left side of the defence, Ferland Mendy has replaced Marcelo as Zidane’s first choice. The Frenchman has become Real Madrid’s primary left back, but on the other side of the pitch Carvajal can be as assured of his place as ever. Even if others don’t readily recognise the contribution of the 28-year-old, it is there and Zidane sees it. That’s all that really matters in the end.

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Barcelona crisis gives Real Madrid shade for their own problems

There is no other talking point in Spanish football at this moment in time. The crisis Barcelona have been plunged into after their humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the Champions League, with the Camp Nou club seemingly crumbling a little more with every passing day.

Quique Setien paid for the loss with his job, with Eric Abidal also sacked from his role as Sporting Director. The way forward isn’t clear for the Catalan club. Most agree, despite the looming appointment of Ronald Koeman as their new manager, that nothing will change until there is a change of regime in next year’s presidential election.

This has provided Real Madrid with some shade for their own problems. Los Blancos might have finished the 2019/20 season as La Liga winners, putting together an extremely strong run of form after lockdown to beat Barcelona to the Spanish top flight title.

Zinedine Zidane still has issues to solve before the start of the 2020/21 campaign, though. Real Madrid’s wage bill is hindering them as a club. High paid players like Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez have been deemed surplus to requirements at the Santiago Bernabeu and yet the capital club will struggle to move them on this summer, leaving an incredible amount of money tied up in their bumper contracts.

Real Madrid’s current squad is an ageing one. Zidane managed to get that little bit more out of the likes of Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos last season, with Karim Benzema arguably the most important player at the Santiago Bernabeu. A generational transition is coming.

Zidane is already preparing for that, with Martin Odegaard recalled to his parent club for next season after an extremely impressive campaign on loan at Real Sociedad. The Norwegian is seen as the natural heir to Modric, with the Croatian midfielder’s Real Madrid contract set to expire next summer.

There’s a sense that Real Madrid still haven’t moved on from the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and a sense that Zidane has only succeeded in patching up his team to keep them moving forward in the short to medium term. A greater transition will have to happen at some point in the near future and just because Barcelona are in a bigger mess doesn’t mean Real Madrid don’t have their own problems.

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Real Madrid have the quality to evolve their team without signings

Only Florentino Perez, and possibly Zinedine Zidane, truly know what Real Madrid’s plans for the summer transfer window were before the global coronavirus pandemic struck. The crisis changed the footballing landscape across Europe and Real Madrid have seemingly been hit harder than most, with Los Blancos’ crippling wage bill putting them in a difficult position.

The noises out of the Santiago Bernabeu are that Real Madrid will not be making any serious moves in the transfer market this summer. Quite simply, the club doesn’t have the money to be shopping from the top shelf, with Perez counting the cost of the game’s shutdown for much of the year.

Even if some of the deadwood is shifted from the club, with the likes of James Rodriguez, Luka Jovic and Mariano Diaz up for sale, the expectation is that Real Madrid will use the money to help balance the books, with the redevelopment of the Santiago Bernabeu taking a lot of resources at this moment in time.

Zidane will still have the quality to evolve his team, though, before the start of the 2020/21 season. Real Madrid have a number of exceptionally talented young players out on loan, with Martin Odegaard the first to be recalled by his parent club this summer. After much speculation over his future, the Norwegian bid farewell to Real Sociedad this week after a season on loan there.

It was at Real Sociedad where Odegaard truly marked himself as one of the very best midfielders in La Liga, proving to Zidane that he is ready to play an important role for Real Madrid next season. Many see Odegaard as the natural successor to Luke Modric, and with good reason.

Then there’s Dani Ceballos who has rediscovered some of his best form on loan at Arsenal. Until recently, it seemed that the midfielder would be sold this summer, but now there are suggestions Ceballos could be recalled to his parent club for next season. The former Real Betis man might finally be given a chance to show what he can do for Los Blancos.

Real Madrid also had Achraf Hakimi on the books before they sold him to Inter, with Takefusa Kubo sent on loan to Villarreal for next season. Zidane might not get the new signings he would ideally want, but he will still have the players at his disposal to evolve his team for next season.

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Juve hope Pirlo move isn’t reminiscent of Ferrara stint

It didn’t take Juventus very long. Within hours of sacking Maurizio Sarri in the aftermath of their Champions League Round of 16 exit to Lyon, the club announced Andrea Pirlo as their new coach.

The announcement duly sent the footballing ecosystem into a flurry of bewildered questions, with the main one of course being: “Wasn’t Pirlo just confirmed as coach of the Juve U-23s?”

Indeed he was, on July 30th the club announced that Pirlo had returned to the club where he’d played for four years to coach the U-23 side, replacing Fabio Pecchia. Nine days later, he was sitting in the big chair. Talk about a fast-track promotion.

Club director of sport Fabio Paratici believes Pirlo is a ‘predestinato’ – bound for greatness – due to his remarkable gifts as a player. Many have used the examples of Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane as once legendary players who transferred their skills from the pitch to the dugout.

However as has been pointed out, Guardiola coached Barcelona’s B side for a season in 2007-08, and Zidane underwent an apprenticeship with Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, in addition to coaching their Castilla side for two years. Pirlo, by contrast, has bypassed all of this on the way to the black and white throne.

It’s a risky move from a club that for most of its history takes very few gambles when it comes to managerial appointments. In fact the last time they hired a practical novice was in the summer of 2009, when they hired Ciro Ferrara at the expense of Antonio Conte.

Ferrara, a Juve legend, had little experience aside from a brief period as part of Marcello Lippi’s backroom staff at the victorious 2006 World Cup. Ferrara had only gained his coaching licence a year before being appointed by the incompetent sporting director Alessio Secco, who hoped Ferrara would be their Guardiola.

After years of playing a mechanical 4-4-2 system under the likes of Fabio Capello, Didier Deschamps and Claudio Ranieri, Ferrara promised change. A switch to a 4-3-1-2 was in order he announced, due to the €25m signing of Brazilian No.10 Diego from Werder Bremen, and Juve would be more adventurous, more modern.

Seven months later he was sacked. A positive start soon gave way to disastrous results and supporter malaise, as it was fairly evident that Ferrara was out of his depth, and replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni at the end of January. In defence of Ferrara, he was handed a mediocre hodgepodge of a squad that consisted of ageing veterans and poorly-advised signings that were ill suited to the style he intended to play. Diego wasn’t long following Ferrara out of the exit door either, sold in the summer of 2010 as Juve appointed Gigi Delneri as coach and a return to 4-4-2.

Like Ferrara, Pirlo faces similar structural squad issues. Four continuous summer transfer windows of poorly-made decisions has now left a bloated, unbalanced squad filled with players on big contracts that they won’t get elsewhere. In the wake of the Champions League KO, Paratici has faced mounting scrutiny, who many feel has been a failure in the sporting director role since replacing Beppe Marotta in the autumn of 2018.

In the early years of their decade of dominance, midfield was arguably Juve’s strongest area of the pitch (with Pirlo himself being a key component), to such an extent that a player like Claudio Marchisio would often find himself relegated to the bench. Since 2015, Marotta and then Paratici essentially neglected the region, selling first Arturo Vidal and later Paul Pogba, whilst trying to plug gaps with ‘free’ signings such as Emre Can, Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot. It’s now reduced what was once a midfield of power, strength, guile and grace into one chronically short on quality.

Whilst it is fair to question many of Paratici’s dealings since taking charge, Marotta isn’t free of criticism. The €90m signing of a-then 28-year-old Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli made little sense in 2016, and makes even less now. Juventus have spent the better part of two years trying to offload the striker, however his €7.5m per season wages have deterred many suitors, a noose around the club’s neck.

The sacking of Sarri won’t magically solve all of Juve’s problems. A major rejuvenation is necessary, a purge of all the costly mistakes of the last several summers. Can Paratici, given the current climate, be relied upon to shift unwanted players? It remains to be seen if he will even remain at the club, given the latest rumours surrounding his future.

Ferrara struggled to make sense of the Juve side he inherited, club President Andrea Agnelli will be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself with Pirlo.

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Could latest Gareth Bale episode finally force his exit from Real Madrid?

It was hardly a surprise when Gareth Bale was left out of Real Madrid’s matchday squad to face Manchester City in this week’s Champions League last 16 second leg at the Etihad Stadium. After all, the Welsh winger has been something of a peripheral figure for the Spanish side this season, only making a handful of starts over the 2019/20 campaign.

What was surprising, though, was the reason Zinedine Zidane gave for Bale’s absence in Manchester. “It was a personal conversation I had with him. He preferred not to play,” the Frenchman responded when asked why the 31-year-old hadn’t travelled with the rest of the squad for the crunch match. “The rest remains between me and him but he said he didn’t want to play.”

The true nature of the conversation between Bale and Zidane is not known, but it doesn’t reflect well on the former that he has decided against even travelling to one of his team’s most important games of the season so far. Bale has earned some sympathy of late for the situation he finds himself in in the Spanish capital, but this episode might see him lose some of his defenders.

Until now, the relationship between Bale and Real Madrid had cooled. While the two parties have been tethered together through inconvenience for years, there was an acceptance on both sides that nothing was about to change. The most recent noises out of the Bale camp are that he will see out the rest of his contract at the Santiago Bernabeu while Real Madrid have seemingly run out of ways to get the player out of the club.

The in-fighting had stopped, but this latest episode has the potential to stoke tensions once more. Last summer, Real Madrid came close to moving Bale on to the Chinese Super League only for them to demand a transfer fee at the last moment. It’s a stance they have kept ever since, but if they feel Bale is becoming a toxic influence, rather than just a passive one, in the dressing room it’s possible they could change that stance and forego any fee.

It’s a shame for all concerned that Bale and Real Madrid have ended up in this situation. Until this week, it appeared set to continue until the summer of 2022, when Bale’s contract in the Spanish capital will expire. But what has now happened has the potential to shift the landscape.

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With the title in the bag can Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid knock Manchester City out of the Champions League?

It’s certainly been an odd season and no one can deny that after the terrible Coronavirus broke up every domestic league in the world. It was the teams who were able to respond quickly after the restart that benefited the most and one of those was Real Madrid.

That the season was Zinedine Zidane’s comeback one after leaving Madrid in 2018 was spectacular that it ended with a La Liga title. Taking away Barcelona’s chance to win a unique hat trick of titles in the process.

No other team in Spain came close to Madrid since the restart with Zidane’s team remaining undefeated and collecting an impressive 28 points from their final 10 games. It was that type of consistency that Barcelona simply could not live with. What is interesting is that despite their flawless consistency Madrid didn’t score many goals in those last 10 games, just 18, where normally you would expect between 25-30 for such a team. At the same time no team in Spain was on fire with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid scoring the most in this period with just 19.

Overall Madrid scored 70 goals, 16 less than Barcelona and less than 2 goals per game, however with 25 goals conceded they had the best defence in the league. Results were not overwhelming but Madrid ground down hard and dug for the wins and it is an important league title given that it is only Zidane’s 2nd title with the team. Incredibly Zidane has won more Champions League’s with Madrid than titles as manager.

And speaking of the Champions League we turn our attentions to the round of 16, where Madrid still have to face off against Manchester City. The 1st leg was a major blow for Zidane’s team who saw City come back from a goal down to win 2-1 at the Bernabeu in what was hailed as a famous victory for Pep Guardiola’s team.

The 2nd leg has been in limbo for 4 months but the two teams will finally meet in Manchester on August 7th and Guardiola’s team will be the favourites to get to the quarter finals.

In short Madrid need to come to the Etihad and score 2 goals, that will be the minimum requirement, they can even concede one and then hope for extra time. Either that or Madrid will have to produce their best game of the season and win big. That seems unrealistic away to this City side and the fact that Madrid have, for them, scored very few goals this season.

It would be a major plus if Madrid were to knock City out and at the same time if they were to be beaten here the icing on the cake as their season draws to an end would be expired and stale.

There is also the shift in power to talk about. A few seasons ago it would have been unthinkable to see Madrid being knocked out in Europe against City, but times can change quick in football. The teams have met before in Europe, clashing in fact in a semi-final where Madrid were simply too strong in the end, but City hold all the ace cards going into this 2nd leg.

Zidane’s job will be safe with the title in the bag even if Madrid are knocked out. And so much time has passed between the 1st and 2nd legs that a lot of perspective can be seen, no rush knee jerk decisions for example. For now Zidane has steered a sinking ship to the title and the thought process must be a clear out in the summer and seeing new fresh faces at the Bernabeu.

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What does the future hold for Gareth Bale as a Real Madrid player?

As Real Madrid have sprinted towards the Spanish title, Gareth Bale’s antics as a substitute in the stands have become something of a sideshow. During the win over Alaves, the Welsh winger was pictured pretending to sleep with his legs up on the feet in front of him and his face mask over his eyes. The hijinks didn’t stop there, with Bale fashioning a paper cup into a pair of binoculars as his teammates claimed a 2-1 win over Granada on Monday.

Of course, this certainly isn’t the first time the 30-year-old has played the clown whilst at Real Madrid. In fact, it’s a role Bale has taken to over the last year or so. Take the infamous ‘Wales, golf, Madrid’ flag and the countless pictures of him practising his golf swing or putting during training. Bale relishes a spot of trolling, that much has been proven

But what does the future hold for the Welshman in the Spanish capital? Of course, Bale came desperately close to leaving Real Madrid for the Chinese Super League last year only for the plug to be pulled on the deal at the very last moment. Now, he has been ostracised from the first team at the Santiago Bernabeu, with the relationship between Bale and Zinedine Zidane seemingly beyond saving.

Zidane has never been a big fan of Bale’s. The story goes that the Frenchman wanted him out of the club at the end of the 2017/18 season, with Real Madrid’s failure to comply with that wish one of the reasons Zidane felt it necessary to resign as head coach. When Zidane was lured back to the club less than a year later, he was promised that he would have the freedom to shape his team as he saw fit. There is no place for Bale in that team then and there still isn’t now.

Bale, however, has a contract that runs until the summer of 2022 and it appears he has every intention of earning every penny he is owed from it. The Welshman feels mistreated by Real Madrid and sees this as his way of taking revenge. It will, however, see Bale waste his peak years as a professional. By 2022, he will be 32 and into the twilight of his career. Is that a price worth paying for revenge?

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Ferland Mendy once again proves he belongs at Real Madrid

In Marcelo, Real Madrid boasted the best left back in the European game for the best part of a decade. Indeed, the Brazilian has been a near ever-present at the Santiago Bernabeu in recent years, but it became clear towards the end of last season that change was needed. Real Madrid required a new left back.

They found that new left back in Ferland Mendy, signed from Lyon last summer. The Frenchman took a month or two to grow accustomed to his new surroundings, and his new teammates, but has quickly established himself in the Real Madrid. He has become Zinedine Zidane’s favoured choice at left back, over Marcelo.

Against Alaves, Mendy demonstrated how he has become such an important figure for Real Madrid this season. While the visitors to the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, where Los Blancos are playing while the Santiago Bernabeu is redeveloped, held their own for the majority of the contest, they struggled to cope with the direct running and dribbling of the French full back.

Time and time again, particularly in the opening 45 minutes, Mendy burst through to the byline and cut back for a teammate. It was only through the wastefulness of those teammates that he was denied an assist, although he did win the penalty kick that led to Karim Benzema’s opener.

Marcelo has been rotated in an out of the Real Madrid starting lineup by Zidane this season, with the Brazilian somewhat rejuvenated by the competition now being provided to him by Mendy. Indeed, the veteran has been able to find better form this season than he did last season, when his decline looked terminal.

But Mendy still offers another dimension over his Brazilian teammate. Zidane wants his Real Madrid side to play an energetic, high tempo game that sees plenty of running and vertical movement from attackers. Mendy embodies this. There are few better currently at the Santiago Bernabeu than him at driving at opponents and forcing them into decisions. From that, opportunities frequently come.

If Real Madrid are to go the distance and clinch only their second La Liga title in eight years, the performances of Mendy will have been a major factor in getting them over the line. The French left back has become a reflection of what Zidane wants to achieve at the Santiago Bernabeu.

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Would Real Madrid be the best destination for Kai Havertz?

His name has become a staple of the gossip column in recent weeks, and with very good reason. Kai Havertz has the makings of a generational talent. Not since the emergence of Mesut Ozil has Germany produced such a talented young player and so it’s natural that Europe’s elite are lining up to pitch themselves to the Bayer Leverkusen youngster this summer.

Chelsea and Liverpool have been most commonly linked with a move for the 20-year-old, but the former in particular seemingly edging the race. The Stamford Bridge club have already spent big on the signings of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech and it seems they wish to continue that spending by completing a deal for Havertz, with Leverkusen demanding a fee of at least £100 million.

The Premier League isn’t the only potential destination for Havertz, though. Real Madrid have also been linked with the German. In fact, for a long time it seemed that the Spanish giants were leading the pursuit of the young midfielder. Havertz has been compared by many to a young Zinedine Zidane and so who better to develop him further than the man himself?

But where would Havertz fit in at the Santiago Bernabeu? Zidane has favoured a 4-3-3 shape this season, with the Frenchman rotating between Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Ernesto Valverde in the centre of the pitch. Havertz, however, is a very different sort of midfielder to any of these three.

In fact, it can be debated whether Havertz is a midfielder at all. Bayer Leverkusen, for instance, used him as a centre forward when Kevin Volland was out injured after the resumption of the season, with the youngster adapting to the role seamlessly. He looked a natural in the role.

That’s because Havertz has the attacking instincts of a forward. He makes runs to get in behind opposition defences and get on the end of crosses into the middle. In the current Real Madrid side, he might be of best use on the right side of the attack, a position where Zidane has chopped and changed between a number of different options. The Santiago Bernabeu is where some of the brightest and best young players go to prove themselves. It would be a fitting stage for a player of Havertz’s talent and potential.

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Are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano?

At first, it was something of a novelty, but the sight of Real Madrid playing home games at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano while the Santiago Bernabeu is being redeveloped has become a familiar one over the last few weeks, with Zinedine Zidane’s side winning four from four games they have played at their home from home.

Previously only used for youth games and Castilla fixtures, Real Madrid’s training ground stadium in Valdebebas has hosted the Liga leaders as they chase down only their second Spanish title in the last eight years. Zidane and his players have looked at ease in these surroundings.

It is, after all, where they train every day. There is a luxury hotel on site for Real Madrid’s players to stay overnight should they want to relax the night before the game and not have the worry of a commute into the centre of the city. Zidane has got his players into a routine of walking over to the stadium from their lodgings on the other side of the complex.

It’s all very leisurely and that has relaxation has been evident in the performances Real Madrid have turned in at their temporary home since the resumption of the Spanish league season. This begs the question – are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano than they have been in recent times at the Santiago Bernabeu?

The Santiago Bernabeu might be the club’s historic and spiritual home, but there is a fear factor to playing there – for home players as well as those visiting. Ask Gareth Bale about that fear factor. He has experienced it first hand over the last few years. The historic venue is a footballing coliseum, but the casualties are often Real Madrid’s own players.

The rural, lowkey surroundings of the Valdebebas training complex have eased Real Madrid back into a title race that, at the time of La Liga’s resumption, looked destined to go down to the wire. It would have been understandable had Zidane and his players felt the pressure, but that pressure hasn’t been evident in their recent performances. Real Madrid will return to the Santiago Bernabeu and their world will regain some sense of normalcy, but for now the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano seems to be the best home for them.

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