The best time to slip up in a title race is the last weekend in August. The race itself is barely under way, the last hours of the transfer window offer an immediate opportunity for distraction and then there’s the sudden interlude for international matches, a clean break, a stall on bad momentum.
Without all that, Real Madrid’s collapse at Real Sociedad on Sunday night would be a story to stab at again and again. Happily for Madrid, transfer deadline day set a new agenda swiftly, gave the club the sort of media set-piece it cherishes; the arrival of striker Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez at the club, on loan from Manchester United for the coming season. The so-called ‘Little Pea’ has served one good purpose already, to avert too much gazing at how the reigning European champions turned a 2-0 lead in its second matchday of La Liga into a 4-2 loss.
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There was no opening of the gates of the Santiago Bernabeu to the public for Hernandez’s unveiling, mainly because the deal had been completed in haste. Besides, for all his high profile in his native Mexico, Hernandez is not quite full box-office, a striker who had become a second-choice for Manchester United, a reserve for his country at the last World Cup — and now carries a reputation as most useful as a penalty-area poacher when he comes on with 20 minutes or fewer left in a match. Chicharito may well contribute regularly for Madrid, but he is an addendum to its heavy summer turnover of staff, not a principal actor.
That turnover of personnel continues to raise questions. On Monday, Cristiano Ronaldo, absent injured from the defeat in San Sebastian, made what is becoming his annual state-of-the-Bernabeu commentary. At a promotional event for one of his sponsors, Ronaldo said: "If I were running Madrid, I would have done things differently." He was talking about the ins and outs at the club over the summer. Echoes here of 12 months ago, when he spoke of his unhappiness at the departure of Mesut Ozil, and of feeling "sad" at Madrid.
Ronaldo renewed his contract soon after those September 2013 statements and finished the season as a UEFA Champions League winner. Any dissatisfaction right now should not be read as restlessness, but simply as doubts over Madrid’s strategy for maintaining its status at the summit of Europe, and regaining the Spanish league. The sanctioning by president Florentino Perez of the sales of Xabi Alonso, who moved to Bayern Munich, and Angel Di Maria, who has joined United, clearly affect Ronaldo, the player who has converted more of their precise passes than anybody into goals over the past three seasons.
"I have my opinions but I cannot always say what I think," said Ronaldo, before implying, strongly, some of what of he thinks. "If the president believes the best thing is to sign the players he signed and to let go others, you have to respect and support him."
Madrid have made a poor start to the season. An insipid victory in their opening league fixture against Cordoba is now sandwiched between two away losses, at Atletico in the second, decisive leg of the Spanish Super Cup, and at Real Sociedad. That was an alarming reverse, with symptoms of the kind of poor game-management that made the absence of wised-up, senior players shout out. Madrid had no Ronaldo; no Xabi Alonso organizing the midfield; no Di Maria to galvanize a recovery in the way he did in Lisbon in late May to change the direction of the Champions League final against Atletico.
Madrid had no sharp finisher on the substitutes’ bench either. A pragmatist like Hernandez might correct that deficiency, at least until Jese Rodriguez, the young Spanish striker who made such an impression last season, comes back to full fitness. An overlooked departure this summer has been that of Alvaro Morata, a striker good enough that Italian champions Juventus bought him, aged 21, for over $23 million. Hernandez essentially fills his space in the squad, just as Toni Kroos occupies Alonso’s role in the team and James Rodriguez takes Di Maria’s.
Madrid are a younger squad, overall, after these switches, and more brittle in hostile territory like San Sebastian, where some old frailties defending crosses and set-pieces were exposed. "We were 2-0 ahead after 15 minutes," observed Ronaldo, "and it’s lesson to us that no game is won until the end."
Madrid will feel the more vulnerable for the three-point gap that Barcelona have established, even at this embryonic stage of the league campaign, even if Barca’s 1-0 win at Villarreal had been labored and somewhat lucky, the opponents having watched shots ricochet off the Barcelona goalposts.
Madrid’s next match? A derby against Atletico at the Bernabeu. Preparation time is limited by the international calendar. Fifteen Madrid players are away with their countries for the next nine days. Ronaldo, rested by Portugal, is not among the travelers. So he has some clear time in Madrid, to talk through his several concerns.