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Real Madrid fans looking at wrong end of horse

Thursday 11th January 2018

Much as elite club supporters might wish (or expect) otherwise, nothing lasts forever. The Kop faced that reality soon after a manager named Alex Ferguson came south. Manchester United fans had to swallow similar medicine when he left. Following Pep Guardiola’s emergence as the latest tactical savant it was Madridistas who were prescribed bitter pills.

Unfortunately Real Madrid socios went off their meds when Zinedine Zidane arrived on the scene. Understandable given the Galactico icon delivered consecutive Champions League titles and a first Primera Division crown in five years. Still, when their team was given a three-goal dose of humility in December’s Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu, many began exhibiting the familiar symptoms of Entitlement Syndrome.

Social media churned with calls for Zidane’s head, immediate exits for Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, followed by whatever-it-takes deals to pry Mauro Icardi, Robert Lewandowski, or Paulo Dybala loose from their respective clubs.

The first two strikers are going nowhere. They’re enjoying too much success at their current clubs.

Dybala has been marginalised at Juventus, partially because his head has been turned. Still, like most young players, consistency is also an issue. Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic are more reliable options for Massimiliano Allegri.  

Zidane shares the Juve boss’ preference for veteran experience. It’s why he has backed Benzema to come good despite the younger Frenchman’s continued struggles. It’s also why he let Alvaro Morata leave for Chelsea.

That said, Zizou still commands a wealth of attacking options even though Los Blancos are averaging just under two goals per game. Another striker might push Real’s numbers closer to three, where they usually reside. Yet doing so would just patch over the real issue.

Root of the problem

Zidane’s defence ships roughly a goal per game. Last season it was slightly more. During this campaign both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are only permitting a goal every other match. Due to inferior defending the Merengue’s margin for error in matches is half their main title rivals.

The Bale haters were quieted for at least one game when the Welshman came off the physio’s table to pot a brace against Celta Vigo. It wasn’t his fault the effort was only worth a point in the standings. His defence let him down. It let the club down. Albeit with a game in hand, the defending Spanish and European champion now trail Barca by 15 points.

Along with Morata, James Rodriguez, and Mariano Diaz, veteran centre back Pepe departed in the summer window. Young prospect Diego Llorente was sold to Real Sociedad after returning from a loan spell with Malaga. Younger prospect Jesus Vallejo also returned from Eintracht Frankfurt. He remains with the squad.

Vallejo is only 20, however. It would be unrealistic to ask him to pull Real’s back line together. The club needs a more experienced option. There are three interesting possibilities who could be had in the January window.

Jonny Evans

The Northern Irishman is apparently on Manchester City’s radar. Pep Guardiola’s new club had been without John Stones for six weeks. The England international returned for the FA Cup match against Burnley, his rust evident when he cleared the ball directly to an opponent, leading to the Clarets’ opener. Then, Stones wasn’t the most reliable defender before damaging his hamstring. In addition Vincent Kompany continues to take knocks. Guardiola can use another defender to prevent a calamitous second-half slide.

Evans would be suitable. He isn’t the most physical defender. The former United centre half is positionally sound, good in the air, and decent with the ball at his feet. Pep can work with that.

So can Zinedine Zidane. Evans’ attributes suit Spanish football. The questions are three-fold. Assuming he would rather vie for a title than fight against relegation, would the Baggies backliner be as interested in going abroad as making a return of sorts to Manchester? If so, would RM president Florentino Perez be willing to wage a bidding war against City’s Abu Dhabi owners? Finally, would the youth-centric Zizou be interested in a 30-year-old?

Toby Alderweireld

The Tottenham defender is two years younger than Evans. He also spent two seasons in Madrid with Atleti before opting for Premier League football at Southampton.

Spurs aren’t mired in a relegation battle though. They are still within shouting range of the Champions League places, only three points behind Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino has to think that’s a manageable deficit given the Reds just sold Philippe Coutinho. The Argentine would probably be reluctant to part with a key player himself.

Conversely, club chairman Daniel Levy may not be. Alderweireld’s contract enters an option year in 2019. By all accounts, player and club are miles apart on new terms. The Belgian is holding out for more than double his £50,000 weekly wage. Suitors could activate a £25,000 release clause that summer. Having endured long negotiations for both Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Florentino Perez knows how difficult it can be to deal with Levy. If he decides his need is great, however, Perez might be willing to make an offer even the intransigent Briton couldn’t refuse.

Stefan de Vrij

Real’s best option might not be a Premier Leaguer. Lazio’s Dutch defender is just 25. That will appeal to Zidane. De Vrij is the glue that holds the Eagles’ back line together. Just what the beleaguered boss needs. And the player’s contract is up in 2018. Trifecta.

The bad news? The Eternal City’s ‘other club’ is holding down Serie A’s final Champions League place. Roma is nipping at Lazio's heels, just a point behind. Supporters would be irate to see De Vrij sold mid-season. The club hierarchy would have to choose between them and the sizable funds the deep-pocketed Spanish giant would be willing to offer.

If we're being honest it really isn’t that difficult a choice. The question is whether Real Madrid has decided it’s in the market for a defender.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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