The man that Pérez wanted to offload since he returned for his second stint as Real president sits in the stands because he is recovering from surgery that repaired a herniated lumbar disc in his back, and José Mourinho has not developed a successful system to cope with this loss. The natural deputy for Higuaín is Karim Benzema, the talented and young French international who came with his own expectations when Real splashed a cool €35 million in the summer of 2009, but he has failed to impress since arriving at the Bernabéu.
This injury was so severe for Higuaín that he was an unused substitute in Real’s most important match of the season to this point against FC Barcelona, and Barça drubbed los blancos 5-0. Benzema, thrown unexpectedly into the Camp Nou cauldron because of Higuaín’s absence, predictably let the moment get to him and became largely ineffective against the Catalans. To be fair, the whole squad had run out of any plausible ideas against Barça, but setting aside El Clásico, Benzema, in essence, was on trial for his future in Madrid from that match forward because Higuaín’s layoff from action extended from a week to a couple weeks to four months when the doctors recommended surgery.
Without looking deeply into the statistics, since Benzema became the starting striker against Barcelona prior to the Mallorca match on Sunday, he had scored six goals in eleven matches in all competitions. Any top-notch striker strives for a goal ratio of one every two games, and Benzema surpassed that, but those six goals came in two matches: a hat-trick against Auxerre in the final match of the UEFA Champions League group stage, when Real already secured the top spot in the group; and a hat-trick against lowly Levante in the first leg of the Copa del Rey Round of 16, when Real ran rampant on the Valencians with an 8-0 thrashing.
Seven appearances in La Liga accrued zero goals, and in five of those matches, Mourinho substituted him. The real indication, however, that Mourinho did not trust in Benzema came last round against Almería, when he was not named in the starting eleven, and Cristiano Ronaldo, an attacking midfielder, played as the lone striker up front with Ángel di María, Mesut Özil, and Kaká supporting Ronaldo. In their next match in midweek against Atlético Madrid, with the tie still alive in the Copa del Rey, Mourinho opted again to place Ronaldo up front and leave Benzema on the bench.
Since Mourinho settled on his optimal starting eleven after the first few weeks of the season to gauge the situation himself with his new club, he hardly made any changes from week to week, so for Mourinho to experiment wildly with his lineup this far into the campaign showed signs of confusion and desperation within the technical staff about the current state of affairs.
Regardless of whatever happens with Real Madrid, calm or stormy, the rumors always fly around them during any January transfer window about whom they are going to sign, and with the Higuaín injury and the Benzema ineffectiveness, the names floated around. Hugo Almeida, Emmanuel Adebayor, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Miroslav Klose, Didier Drogba, and now Roman Pavlyuchenko. The players would never admit to this, but the dissent apparent among Mourinho, Pérez, and technical director Jorge Valdano concerning the striker question is indirectly affecting their play on the pitch, and with Barcelona routinely cruising to three, four, and five goal victories, any slip-up is magnified hundred-fold.
Despite the drama enveloping events at the Santiago Bernabéu, they have won every single match at home in all competitions this season, and after their 1-1 debacle at the Estadio Juegos Mediterráneos against Almería, Real needed the comfort of the Bernabéu to assuage their growing concerns.
Unfortunately, they hosted a Mallorca team that earned a share of the points at the Iberostar Stadium against Real in the opening round of the season, and Michael Laudrup’s team had no intention of bowing for their illustrious opponents. In three matches as manager against the club with whom he used to play, two with Getafe and one with Mallorca, Real had only scored one goal in those three games, and in a famous 0-1 win for Getafe in February 2008, Ikechukwu Uche fired the lone goal immediately after the Real players were celebrating an Arjen Robben goal that was nullified by referee Arturo Daudén Ibáñez because he correctly ruled Raúl offside. The win for Getafe spoiled Real Madrid perfect home record that season, and Laudrup’s Mallorca wanted to repeat the same feat on Sunday.
Laudrup has a different type of squad with Mallorca than he had with Getafe, and he cannot play the free-flowing, open type of football for long stretches like he did with Getafe. Pablo Hernández, Ikechukwu Uche, and Manu worked and created seamlessly at Getafe to play as Laudrup wanted, and while Pierre Webó, Gonzalo Castro, Emilio Nsue, etc. are decent attacking players, they are not the type of players that will scare opposing defenses for more than a few occasions in a match. What he does have at Mallorca is a pair of central defenders that will rival any duo in Spain, Iván Ramis and José Nunes, and a goalkeeper that continues to be underrated and under-appreciated among the Spanish scribes, Dudu Aouate.
Mallorca limited Real to a few scoring chances in their 0-0 draw in August, and when Real bossed the match in the second half and pinned all ten Mallorca players in their own half, Aouate made a multitude of outstanding saves, and Ramis and Nunes closed down and blocked several shots that would have menaced Aouate’s goal.
With Webó’s strike partner Víctor Casadesús out for eight to ten weeks with a thigh injury, both Jonathan de Guzman and Pep Lluís Martí on the sidelines with minor knee injuries, and right back Pau Cendrós suspended, Laudrup could have expected to defend for most of Sunday’s match, similar to the second half of the reverse fixture earlier in the season.
Mourinho tinkered with his lineup again, benching Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, and Mesut Özil in favor of Fernando Gago, Esteban Granero, and Karim Benzema respectively. With a Copa del Rey semifinal on Wednesday against Sevilla, Mourinho might have looked to rest a few players against Mallorca, but with Real blundering and bumbling through their last few matches, Mourinho could have easily been sending a message to his squad that no spot is guaranteed. Without Benzema in the starting eleven for the past two matches, Real struggled to score, so with little choice, Mourinho stuck Benzema back up front.
While los merengues huffed and puffed in the first half, Mallorca’s Emilio Nsue had the best scoring chance of the half in the 13th minute when he shot from the right side of the penalty area across the face of goal toward the left far post and past Iker Casillas, but the post was unkind for Mallorca, pinging the ball away from goal. Nsue entered into acres of space down the right wing because Marcelo was out of position inside Mallorca’s final third, and Casillas made sure that Marcelo knew that when he confronted Marcelo immediately after Nsue banged the post, displaying the increasingly frayed nerves and tensions among the Real players.
Mourinho admitted to his mistakes when he made two halftime changes, sending in Xabi Alonso and Mesut Özil and taking out Fernando Gago and Kaká. In his press conference after the match, he stated how the Copa del Rey was a priority and because of that, he made a few changes because, in his words, “We [the coaching staff] have noted the physical and emotional wear and tear of the team at the moment.”
When Webó’s left-footed, pirouette first-time volley forced a stellar save by Casillas early in the second half, and referee Eduardo Iturralde González correctly did not call a handball in the box on Nunes in the 58th minute, it would not have been a stretch to imagine that Michael Laudrup would have done it again to his old team. In all of this uncertainty, the opening goal went to Real just after the hour mark, and Karim Benzema, of all people, gave Madrid the 1-0 lead.
The build-up play set up Benzema in the box, with Ronaldo setting up Granero, who then played a through ball for Benzema. Benzema still had plenty of work to do, and after a stepover and a dribble to create a crucial yard of room and to get the ball on his left foot, he rifled it to the left far post and past Aouate for a vital goal not only for this match but for Real’s hope of stealing the La Liga title away from Barcelona.
For the final half-hour, Real pounded Aouate’s box. Ronaldo had a header that struck the crossbar, he also had a free kick that whizzed by the right far post by the width of a ball, and Benzema had three different chances to seal the victory, none of which he capitalized, reverting back to the Benzema that the Real fans knew. Mallorca almost had the last laugh in the third minute of stoppage time when Nsue and Webó perfected a two-man game down the right side of the penalty area, leading to a Webó shot that needed the outstretched legs of Casillas to prevent from Mallorca equalizing at the death.
1-0 fulltime, and Real somehow pulled three points out of the Bermellón fire.
Real Madrid cannot stay in this form for too much longer if they want to reclaim La Liga from Barcelona, and while their next eight matches in the league would not worry them too much, save for Espanyol at the Cornellà – El Prat and maybe their match at home against Real Sociedad, it only takes one really poor performance as they had against Almería to squander their chance in La Liga. They cannot ride the suggestion that Barcelona will drop points even though their world-beating ways must end at some point, and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s Pichichi-leading twenty-two goals, he is not the answer as the lone striker up top.
There is one full week left in the transfer window, and Real Madrid may well provide the extra striker that Mourinho always wanted since he arrived in Madrid in the summer, but if Jorge Valdano wins Florentino Pérez’s influence over Mourinho, Benzema will be the man to shoulder the responsibility up front. Speaking about Benzema after the match on the club website, Valdano continued to reiterate his support for Benzema:
“Goals are essential to strikers. A striker needs confidence and it comes with goals. He [Benzema] had a good game and scored a goal that allowed us to take three points. In the past, it was players like Higuaín who had to resolve similar situations as they were heavily scrutinized, and Higuaín has turned out to be a great striker for Real Madrid. We hope the same happens to Benzema.”
While Valdano would definitely back Benzema since he was instrumental in bringing him to the Bernabéu in the summer of 2009, Benzema’s situation is strikingly similar to Higuaín when the Argentinean made his €13 million move from River Plate to Real Madrid in January 2007. After a hit-and-miss year and a half at the Bernabéu, he banged in the goals at the end of the 2007-08 season to give Real their 31st league title, and Higuaín has never looked back.
Benzema’s goal against Mallorca on Sunday, his first in La Liga since September against Espanyol, could be the watershed moment that he needs to raise his confidence and become the striker that Valdano and Pérez saw with Lyon and the French national team. Unfortunately, this was also said about his hat-trick against Auxerre and his hat-trick against Levante.
Fueras de Juego
- Valencia and nine-man Málaga’s 4-3 thriller at the Mestalla further ingrained the opinions about each team. For Valencia, their attack is much more effective when both Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz pair up together, and Valencia’s shaky second-half defense will cost them important points that could determine if they earn a Champions League berth at the end of the season. For Málaga, their numerous signings this January should keep them from the relegation fight because their attacking talent should carry them through, but their defense continues to leak goals, conceding forty-five, eleven more than the next worst defenses, Almería and Levante.
- Cani did not score another goal from the halfway line, but Villarreal worked hard for their 2-1 victory over Real Sociedad to regain third place from Valencia and maintain a two-point lead over their provincial rivals. Marco Rubén has been more than a capable deputy for Nilmar, and the jack-of-all-trades midfield work of Borja Valero and Bruno Soriano have returned the Yellow Submarine back to its lofty perch of a top-three Spanish side.
- If Atlético Madrid’s limp performance in the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Real Madrid signaled trouble at the Vicente Calderón, their 1-0 defeat at El Molinón against relegation-fighting Sporting Gijón was outright impotent. The absence of Sergio “Kun” Agüero and Atlético’s corresponding poor showings without him proves the point that he is more valuable to the Atleti at this moment than Diego Forlán, and whereas Marco Rubén has filled in admirably for Nilmar, Diego Costa has not provided that same spark deputizing for Agüero. Atlético is starting to fall away from the top-five, seven points behind fifth-place Espanyol and ten points away from Valencia for the final Champions League spot, and Quique Sánchez Flores’ may face a sacking sooner than later. Is that not the situation with every Atlético manager however?