The last time Real Madrid were this shocked by a departure they made a right mess of coping with it. And don’t be under any illusion, Madrid thought Karim Benzema, easily one of the top three or four footballers ever to have worn Los Blancos’ world-famous shirt and badge, was staying with them for at least another season. This isn’t a departure they were prepared for.
Thursday morning’s Marca, Madrid’s football paper of choice, dedicated its front page, and seven inside pages, to the fact that the man to whom they were giving their “Legend” award, was definitely staying.
The Frenchman told Marca, when asked about speculation that he might move to Saudi Arabia: “The internet’s been talking about my future but the internet isn’t reality. I enjoy every single day at Madrid, every single training session. There’s no other club in the world like Madrid and no stadium like the Bernabeu.”
“The Legend Continues” was the big, splash, headline. None of that happened without Madrid’s blessing. They, too, thought that this issue could be addressed towards the end of his contract — in a year’s time.
So: the last time Los Blancos were caught out this badly? Well, it was in 2018 when another French legend, Zinedine Zidane, quit his position less than a week after coaching Madrid to their 13th (and third consecutive) Champions League trophy — in Kiev with that 3-1 victory over Liverpool. Zidane mulled on his surprise decision for a couple of days, told Florentino Perez, refused to listen to the normally persuasive Bernabeu president, and they gave a joint news conference — the president failing to disguise his annoyance. His face looked like he was chewing a wasp.
Faced with an unexpected dilemma, they tapped the shoulder of Spain manager Julen Lopetegui, agreed a quick deal to begin in late July, announced it before La Roja’s first World Cup 2018 game against Portugal, and the Spanish FA sacked Lopetegui before a ball was kicked in Russia.
Lopetegui — who was never the right personality for that club, that president, that fan base or that deeply demanding media — lasted until October of his first season. Precisely 14 competitive matches. He was replaced by Santi Solari who lasted until March. Not until Zidane was persuaded to return in March 2019 was the ship forced back on to the right path.
But the cost of being badly caught out, and then misjudging what to do, was high. Madrid were beaten at home 4-1 by Ajax in the Champions League round of 16, beaten 3-0 at home by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinal, and trailed home third in LaLiga by a 19-point margin.
You’re right — manager and principal striker aren’t identical problems. There can only be one of the former, the market is smaller and the latter’s departure could, feasibly, be compensated for by two or three signings. But the underlying threat is similar. When Madrid are strategic, when they are ahead of the game, they show brilliance of deal making — Vinicius, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde, Eder Militao, Eduardo Camavinga were all shrewd signings, while Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba joined on frees from Chelsea and Bayern, respectively.
This time they don’t have that advantage.
Nor is it irrelevant that Marco Asensio is leaving, for free, at the same time. That these two prodigiously talented men, plus Mariano and Eden Hazard, are all off the wage bill is a €75m boost for Madrid’s Financial Fair Play profile as far as LaLiga is concerned. They have fiscal muscle — the power to buy, and salary, ambitiously. But the loss is huge — in the last two seasons Asensio and Benzema contributed 139 goals and assists. A lot to replace. And Madrid can’t afford to botch it up like they did when Zidane left suddenly.
We can take it that the smoke signals indicating that striker Joselu will move from Espanyol to Madrid are true. And Los Blancos, still reigning world champions, will enjoy this clever professional as a squad man. Joselu is 33 years old, has one European goal, two international goals and just registered his highest LaLiga total –16. Good as he is, his signing cannot be the solution to the problem suddenly staring Madrid in the face.
Partly, they’re in a bind because of two fabulous players and a couple of human sins — lust and the fury of rejection. The two players are Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. The former has turned Madrid down three times now — the last being the most spectacular. It’s not only Perez who has a hard time swallowing that behaviour. Los Blancos’ magnificent history means that their fans, and media, are within their rights to feel a trifle haughty.
Even though Mbappe is scheduled to be a free agent in a year and is someone Real Madrid have coveted since he was a kid, it’s not a simple process for Perez to get over the idea that he consistently chose the big bucks at PSG over the last two invitations he had to come and join the world’s most successful club. Madrid know he’s right for them, in football terms. But should they swallow their pride? Should they (could they?) wait a year for him?
Then there’s the other object of their fascination, Haaland. Someone in a position of influence at Madrid has consistently been briefing the city’s two big football newspapers that they expect to persuade the astonishing 22-year-old Norwegian to join them soon. It may be a figment of Madrid’s imagination. They may be misinformed. But they think they’ll be able to winkle him out of Manchester City.
Honestly, I doubt that’s happening any time soon — but it’s my job to tell you how Madrid look at things. What they think their options are. And, frankly, if Madrid have stunned us in one particular way during the entirety of Perez’s near quarter-century reign, it’s been in concluding transfer deals which nobody else thought were feasible.
Bringing us to Harry Kane. Yes, you’re right, Madrid could try to scratch a different itch (than Mbappe) and make PSG an offer for Neymar. Like Mbappe, Madrid so nearly had Neymar on their books — only to be controversially thwarted by Barcelona. Although Neymar hasn’t looked after himself particularly well, his time at PSG has brought 145 goals in fewer than 170 matches. The candle’s flame may dim sooner than it should with Neymar but, right now, he’s still an exceptional talent, and partnering him with Vinicius and Rodrygo must have some attraction for Perez.
Kane, though, is one that Madrid have studied long and hard. Not many people list this as one of the England captain’s badges of honour — but he’s not unlike Benzema.
Moreno: Only Harry Kane can replace Karim Benzema at Real Madrid
Alejandro Moreno explains why he believes Harry Kane is the only candidate to replace Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
Okay, the Frenchman has won infinitely more in his career — for club and country. But one of the things Madrid are losing is his stunning ability to play either as a clever, hard-to-pin down, inventive, creative and sublimely skilled No. 10 or as an out-and-out, old-style No. 9. They sometimes call him a “nine-and-a-half” in Spain for that very reason.
Kane has some of those magic beans. While the 29-year-old, who’s out of contract in a year, is better known for his marvellous goal stats, one part of his terrific partnership with Son Heung-Min stems from Kane’s ability to drop deep, into a No. 10-style position, and link play brilliantly.
The Londoner, who has 350 goals for club and country, is blessed with tremendous technique, vision and football intelligence. It would be infantile to say he’s a Benzema replica — we’re talking about one of the all-time European greats. But Kane has been drawing the admiring gaze of Perez for many months. The question now is whether the Spanish billionaire fancies getting into another tortuous round of negotiations with his Spurs counterpart, Daniel Levy.
He swore he wouldn’t. After the blood, sweat and tears it cost him to prise Luka Modric, and then Gareth Bale, out of Spurs, the Madrid president vowed not to get around a negotiating table with Levy again. Might be time for a change of heart?
People can throw in candidates such as Kai Havertz (a stylish player with a highest league return of 17 goals, four years ago, and a best of eight in a season since moving to Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku or the prolific Victor Osimhen. Madrid could even make a cheeky offer to Lionel Messi — they’ve made several before!
But the fact remains: Benzema, following the important loss of Casemiro last season, is a departure that Madrid aren’t equipped to deal with. The heat is on, and they have to react with brilliance and intelligence rather than pure speed. A description which fits the departing French magician rather well too. Brilliance and intelligence, rather than pure speed, whenever the heat was on.