Teutonic Duo at the Heart of Real Madrid Renaissance

Ahead of Wednesday’s semifinal second leg between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, we take a closer look at the two German players who form the core of the current Real Madrid side.

SAMI KHEDIRA

Deep in the bowels of the hallowed Santiago Bernabeu in the week preceding what would be the season-defining fortnight for Real Madrid, the legend that is Alfredo di Stefano made a small but glaring faux-pas.

He mispronounced the name of a current Madrid player and continued to refer to him by said name throughout the course of their conversation. The story goes that ‘Sami Khe-ri-da’ did not mind but took the matter easily in his stride, much as he has done the last couple years which have seen the midfielder rise from relative mediocrity with Stuttgart to playing anchor for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, a club that has seemingly single-handedly taken on the job of plotting the fall of Barcelona, perhaps the greatest club side in world football history.

These are heady days for the German midfielder of Tunisian origin and Khedira could be forgiven for taking some time to blink a few times as to where football has bought him. But ever since he was fast-tracked into the Germany team due to an injury to Michael Ballack, the young midfielder has made it a habit of taking success in his stride.

One of Jose Mourinho’s first signings after the Portuguese made the switch to the Bernabeu, the initial assessment of Khedira was that he would at best be a role player at Madrid behind the likes of Esteban Granero and Lassana Diarra, accompanying the fixed point of Xabi Alonso in midfield. A first team spot was seemingly out of the question.

But two years later, Khedira is still part of Mourinho’s core-group of, for want of a better term, untouchables. For better or worse, the dynamic midfielder has established himself as a fixture in the midfield, perfectly complementing the characteristics of Alonso’s metronomic passing with a box-to-box role that requires energy, stamina and a great deal of tactical understanding.

That’s not to say that the critics have stopped sniping. There is a growing sense of belief among Germany fans that Khedira’s role in the team is one most at risk at the emergence of players like Toni Kroos. But despite the latter’s superb form, Khedira remains at the core of both Joachim Loew and Jose Mourinho’s plans.

The key aspect of Khedira is his duality, in both being able to play an offensive role and a defensive role equally competently in a game. He is often the man over in  offense when the opposition has made preparations to deal with Madrid’s fantastic front four, and even more critically, he is often also the spare man cleaning up in defence when Madrid are facing counter-attacks.

It is true that the goals have dried up for Khedira since his switch to Madrid, but on Saturday, he scored one that will not quickly be forgotten. Even Di Stefano confirmed as much.

“After Khedira’s goal against Barcelona, I will never forget his name again.”

MESUT ÖZIL

Understanding of space. There is nothing quite like it. In a game, that has over the years become the abode of athletes, superior knowledge of space is the only thing that can really make the difference between being a (pun intended) Pavon, or say, a Zidane. Just ask Zinedine Zidane.

The Frenchman always wanted to play for his hometown club of Marseille, but it is a dream yet unfulfilled. As a youngster, he failed a trial for their youth team; France’s most famous club, it seemed, wanted athletes not aesthetes.

When Real Madrid shelled out 15 million Euros for Mesut Ozil in the summer of 2010, this was the same question doing the rounds. Özil had just had a brilliant World Cup, but with a single year remaining in his contract at Bremen and despite a slew of scouts from Arsenal to Munich doing the rounds, no offer had been forthcoming.

But then in came Madrid and Jorge Valdano, egged on by the wanton demands of Jose Mourinho. Özil was a player he wanted and had so ever since he had watched him dismantle Inter Milan for Bremen in a Champions League game.

But the questions still remained.  With Madrid boasting of the newly acquired Sergio Canales and the pacy Argentine Angel di Maria, Özil too was seen as a typical Madrid purchase; one who would cushion the bench as the latest must-have accessory.

No one could have been more wrong.

In his two years at Madrid, Özil has grown into one of the top players in the team. He has rarely sat out a game, almost always playing when fit. True, he often did not last ninety minutes, what with old worries about his stamina being bought to the fore but even that seems to have been remedied lately. The German now shoulders defensive burdens as well, best evidenced by his role in often winning the ball back in their El Clasico clash this weekend.

But if these are skills that Özil has developed, he has refined many others.

As Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame explains so well, Özil’s strength is that he is always thinking, always plotting. He sees space, he understands it, he occupies it, and almost always to devastating effect. It’s not always quantifiable, but it’s almost always to an end. It’s not without reason that Alvaro Arbeloa calls him “a scandalously good player.”

In truth Özil is a phenomenon, a player of beguiling skill for whom football is almost as much about solving puzzles as scoring goals. He is also living proof that in a sport where speed of foot is the new obsession, speed of mind is what one truly needs to be successful. A “football creator” in the words of Jorge Valdano. And more importantly he is the straw that stirs this Real Madrid drink.

As Jose Mourinho so aptly described, “”Özil is unique. There is no copy of him – not even a bad copy.”

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Quazi Zulquarnain

There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only popular opinion. Follow me on twitter @nondeplume

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