“Why put another layer of gold plate on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Zinedine Zidane’s withering assessment of the decision to sign David Beckham and sell Claude Makelele came to sum up the demise of the first Galáctico era.
Real Madrid had just won La Liga and been champions of Europe in three of the previous six seasons. With Makelele gone, they promptly went three years without a trophy for the first time in half a century.
Even so, the answer to Zidane’s rhetorical question has never been in any doubt. This is Real Madrid, the club that styles itself as the biggest in the world and defines itself by acquiring the world’s best players. And never more so than with Florentino Pérez in charge.
Real’s president, Galáctico accumulator extraordinaire and the man who dismissed Makelele as easily replaceable is back at the helm and doing things his way. That means the only constant at the Bernabeu is high-profile change.
“I’m in no hurry,” said coach Carlo Ancelotti of his Champions League winning squad earlier this summer. “I’m very happy with these players.” But Pérez was not going to be denied his moment. La Décima was Ancelotti’s time for adulation. The summer belongs to him.
With superstars short on supply, the only question was where to turn for his fix. Aside from Franck Ribery, now 31, each of the podium occupants from the last five Ballon d’Or ceremonies either play for Real Madrid or are at rivals Barcelona. Options were limited.
Perez and Real Madrid needed a World Cup star to emerge and James Rodriguez provided it. Top scorer, scorer of the best goal and the unofficial player of the tournament, James was wearing Colombian yellow but as far as Pérez was concerned he may as well have been in neon.
“I'd jump at the chance of going to Real Madrid,” the 23-year-old was quoted as telling Marca on World Cup final day. “It is the dream of my life.” Within a fortnight, it’s become a £63million reality.
So where will he play? The small matter of tactics remains a mere afterthought for the man who bought Beckham despite having Luis Figo already in situ on the right flank. As a result, Ancelotti will be asked to find a role for his new No 10 despite having won La Décima without one.
At least Pérez has the right coach in place to make a malleable approach work. Whether it’s the fantasy 4-2-3-1 or a fudged hybrid, Ancelotti will try to find a way. But it will require a reshuffle. And in a switch that symbolises Real Madrid, the 2014 version of Makelele may have to make way.
Angel Di Maria is no holding midfielder in the Makelele mould, although you wouldn’t bet against him making it work after a season in which he emerged as a key figure in the centre of the pitch – playing a selfless role that nevertheless flung him to the fore.
He was his team’s best player in a Champions League final they salvaged in such spectacular style. “He’s having a fantastic season,” Ancelotti had said on the eve of that game. “He’s adapted to a position that is not his and I can place him in other positions. We are very pleased with him.”
It might have been very different as the club toyed with selling him last summer. “I think that Di Maria knows very well that everyone loves him,” Ancelotti was moved to remark. “The coach, the club and the fans love him. I don’t think he has any doubt about that.”
The coach forgot to include team-mates on the list but in Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria also had the backing of the main man in keeping him at the club when others at the top were prepared to let him walk away. His support is believed to have been crucial.
“I didn’t find out from him, but from elsewhere that he had said that about me,” said Di Maria. “That one of the stars of the team praises me and backs me to stay here is very important. I’m really grateful and I’ll try to keep working well.”
Clue from history
No wonder Ronaldo wanted him in the team. Di Maria responded with 17 assists in La Liga – the most of any player in Europe’s top five leagues last season. Enough to save him now James is in town? A clue from history suggests not.
Only one player has matched that tally of 17 assists in the last three seasons across any of the big five leagues of Europe. That man was Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid in 2011/12. The man sold to make way for Gareth Bale, celebrated by fans at the Welshman’s unveiling and mourned by Ronaldo.
And yet, all those fears were forgotten when Bale scored the winner in Lisbon in May. Such is the way with Real Madrid. The names keep coming. The club goes on. Pérez, Ancelotti, Rodriguez, Ronaldo, Zidane and the rest will hope it’s a similar story if Real lose their engine again this summer.