FFT.com's Spanish expert Tim Stannard assesses the injury angst about to rock the Bernabeu...
A vacancy has arisen at Real Madrid, in one of the toughest, hardest-to-fill, impossible-to-please positions in the line-up: defensive midfielder. Poor Sami Khedira is set for up to six months on the sidelines after tearing a cruciate knee ligament in Germany's friendly against Italy on Friday.
The now wide-open midfield berth has proved a notoriously tough one to fill over the years, with the home crowd disliking everyone ever stuck there for not getting forward enough. The back four, meanwhile, will always resent the unfortunate sap who is supposed to shield them for being up the either end of the pitch trying to appease grumpy fans.
Although Cristiano Ronaldo tweaking an eyebrow would be bigger news in Spain, the loss of Khedira, whose participation in the World Cup must now be a doubt, is an enormous blow to the team’s title chances. Madrid's defensive organisation has been an area of struggle thanks to their worryingly soft centre in front of the back four, but Khedira was by far the first choice for the position.
Alternatives in the first XI now include untried Brazilian Casemiro, or getting Asier Illarramendi and Xabi Alonso to share defensive duties. That would certainly be good news for the €36 million Real Sociedad import, who has proved a bit of a misfit so far this season. However, the fine readers of AS and Marca feel another misfit in the form of Isco should be the tough tackler to plug the midfield hole.
While Pepe, Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema were in action in proper World Cup qualification games, Alonso was unlucky enough to start Spain’s somewhat controversial friendly in the democratic paradise of Equatorial Guinea. Despite a weary Vicente del Bosque claiming his team were “sportsmen” and “have not come to give prestige to, nor strengthen, nor oppose anyone,” the clash remained a controversial one, with the host country's regime hardly one of the friendliest around.
The match, a feisty affair in one direction, saw Khedira’s Madrid midfield mate Alonso on the receiving end of a tackle from Thierry Fidjeu, who embarked on a solo mission to break the legs of every visiting player on the pitch. Alonso limped from the game after 42 minutes, having nearly lost his ankle. “A friendly with war wounds,” was Marca's worrisome verdict on the 2-1 win.
The Spanish camp's other big news is that Del Bosque has confirmed he'll be extending his contract with La Roja until 2016, unsurprising considering the moustache-clad maestro has led his team to victories in the World Cup and European Championship with a win percentage of over 80%. It is perhaps timely, then, that his next challenge is a Tuesday friendly in South Africa, the scene of the Spain’s most famous moment in its history. Supporters hope it will be a considerably friendlier affair than Saturday’s set-to.
ANALYSIS Michael Cox on Madrid's young Spanish imports Illaramendi, Isco and Carvajal