Distractions not new for Real Madrid
Any thoughts that Real Madrid’s stars would use their US tour to slowly ease their way into the new season, or that players would be distracted by transfer speculation, did not last long into the La Liga champion's opening game of their summer US tour against Los Angeles Galaxy Thursday evening.
Jose Mourinho’s side showed its focus by scoring within 85 seconds of the kick off and then racing 2-0 ahead inside 10 minutes and ultimately outclassing the reigning Major League Soccer title holder's La Galaxy 5-1.
Next up for Madrid is a Herbalife World Football Challenge match against Mexican champion Santos Laguna in Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium on Sunday (live, FOX Soccer, 11 p.m. ET). After the match against the LA Galaxy, Mourinho said that the performance showed his players were seriously back to work ahead of the 2012-13 campaign.
“Our attitude was very good, we are working a lot and we played with joy and wanted to win,” said the Portuguese coach. “We have a team of winners, who demonstrate that every day. This is the same group as last season and we are prepared for another good year. That is what I expect.”
One Real Madrid player very much looking forward to the game - and to spending time in Vegas - is talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who on Tuesday evening tweeted - “Las Vegas, I will see you next week.”
Ronaldo, as well as Spain's Euro 2012 winners Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa, made their season debuts against the Galaxy. Argentine winger Angel di Maria looked exceptionally sharp at the Home Depot Center, providing the assist for Gonzalo Higuain to score the first goal and slamming in the second himself. Jose Callejon got the third from a superb Higuain pass.
Also eager to impress against Santos Laguna will be promising youngsters Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez, who scored Madrid’s fourth and fifth goals against Los Angeles. Great things are expected of Rodriguez in particular, after the teenager scored the winning goal as Spain won the U-19 European Championship final last month.
Less certain of being given important roles by Mourinho this season are Brazilian playmaker Kaka and Turkish midfielder Nuri Sahin, who have both been linked with moves away from the Santiago Bernabeu.
Sahin is expected to be loaned out to Premier League side Arsenal if in fact Luka Modric completes his transfer to Madrid from Tottenham. Kaka, the former FIFA World Player of the Year, reportedly turned down a move to MLS side New York Red Bulls earlier in the summer and could rejoin Italian club AC Milan if he lowers his salary demands.
Mourinho suggested after the Galaxy victory that if both wanted to play regularly in the coming months they should look for new clubs.
“The most important thing is for him (Kaka) to decide what he wants for his future and his self-esteem,” said the ex-Chelsea and Internazionale coach. “It is not a problem for me if he stays. [Sahin’s] situation is not easy because he wants to play and we have a lot of midfielders. I want him to make his own decision, and to be happy.”
Mexican champion Santos will be confident of matching up better against Madrid than the Galaxy, having won its opening two matches in the Apertura stage of the Mexican Primera this season. Coached by Benjamin Galindo, who played in midfield for Mexico at the 1994 World Cup 1994, Los Guerreros' roster includes veteran Mexican international goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, talented Argentine playmaker Daniel Ludueña and hard-working midfielder Marc Crosas. Crosas, a former Barcelona youth player, will likely be extra motivated against his former club’s major rivals.
The biggest draw for US – and especially Vegas - soccer fans should be local hero Herculez Gomez. The 30-year-old striker, who recently returned to the US men's national team under current coach Jurgen Klinsmann, told his club website this week that playing Madrid would be “special” for him and his teammates.
“We must have fun and enjoy the game,” he said. “It is not every day you have this opportunity, even more so in a big city like Las Vegas. This will be my second time to play against Real Madrid, it is always something special.
“You never forget these moments.”
This is Madrid’s third consecutive year spending pre-season in the United States, and the club is keen to grow its connections with the American soccer community. Last Monday Mourinho addressed 150 leading coaches from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) at UCLA, sharing some of the coaching and motivational tricks which have brought him such success at Madrid, Internazionale, Chelsea and FC Porto.
After leaving Las Vegas, Madrid’s summer tour continues next week with games against AC Milan in New York and then Glasgow Celtic in Philadelphia. Madrid’s competitive season begins August 19 at home to Valencia in La Liga, with the two-legged Spanish Supercopa against Barcelona being played August 23 and August 30 respectively.
Mourinho understands the importance of getting a fast start in a season. Sunday's game against Santos Laguna is important in making sure his side reaches these early season tests in top form.
“At this moment the teams are not perfect and make mistakes,” he said. “The players are not at full fitness and need kilometres in their legs.
“We want to use these games to play better each time. We are going to improve and the team will be prepared for the first official game against Valencia.”
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.