Real Madrid's Santiago Solari makes strong start, but challenges lie ahead for new manager
Spanish giants are struggling in Primera Liga, while Solari needs to deal with troublesome issue over Isco and mould upcoming players
A glance at football’s individual honours for 2018 suggests this as the year the sport shifted its centre of gravity. After all, neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi won the Ballon d’Or or the Fifa World Player of the Year awards.
Yet, it seems the club hierarchy is harder to shake up. Real Madrid are and remain world champions following a record third defence of that title.
They may no longer have Ronaldo, but they have Luka Modric – new Ballon d’Or and World Player of the Year holder. Fittingly, Modric was the man whose precisely curled and powerful shot opened the scoring in the 4-1 win over Al Ain to put the serial winners of the Fifa Club World Cup in command of the final.
Modric finished with a silver medal at the World Cup, captaining Croatia in July. Five months on, he was reminded once again that he plays for a club that – for all their struggles to find week-to-week consistency – are geared up better than almost anybody to crack major finals.
It matters little that the methods are so familiar.
Yes, every rival manager knows it is essential to police Sergio Ramos at set-pieces. Yet he keeps popping up, usually with a springy leap and a flex of those neck muscles, to make his impact on major events.
His headed goal – Madrid’s third at Zayed Sports City Stadium – was, remarkably, his eighth goal in a final for Madrid. He also scored in the 2014 and 2016 Uefa Champions League wins, and in the Club World Cup summit clash against San Lorenzo in 2014.
He may be booed by opposition supporters or even neutrals almost wherever he goes, the pantomime villain of the global game, but it would be hard to find a central defender with quite such influence.
Ramos, along with Marcelo – provider of the pass that set up the fourth Madrid goal – reached the milestone of 20 trophies as a Madrid player in Abu Dhabi; Ramos adds those to the World Cup and the pair of European championships he won with Spain.
There is probably too much of the sly and cynical about how he manhandles opponents, too vivid a memory of his causing injury to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah early in the last Champions League final and too long a list of red cards for the Madrid captain to ever win a Ballon d’Or.
But he may think he deserves one, and he made a tart point on Saturday after listening to the whistles and boos. “There should be respect for the achievers in football,” he said.
He also reminded reporters of a truth he has learned in 13 and a half years with Madrid. “You never give this club up for dead,” Ramos advised, acknowledging the Club World Cup triumph has followed the poorest start to a Primera Liga season he has experienced as a Madrid player.
“I am certain we will end up competing for every trophy this season.”
Madrid must do so from a precarious position in the Primera Liga: they are in fourth place with just a one-point advantage over upstart Alaves, who are in fifth, and eight points behind leaders Barcelona.
Their guide for that, manager Santiago Solari, is a novice. Solari is the third man in the job in 2018, promoted from within Madrid 55 days ago as emergency cover for the dismissed Julen Lopetegui.
As he led Madrid to his first senior trophy this weekend, he bore the distraction of the freshly unemployed Jose Mourinho being linked with his job. The Club World Cup should be fortifying, at least temporarily.
Solari will also be encouraged by the form of some younger players in the UAE. Marcos Llorente was a goalscorer against Al Ain. Brazilian teenager Vinicius Junior came on a substitute and made the running for the last goal, in off the unfortunate Yahia Nader.
Madrid invested heavily in Vinicius, and would like him to develop as a glamorous, attacking superstar in the mould of a Ronaldo. If Solari can aid that process, he will be approved in the boardroom. If he can coax consistency from Gareth Bale, all the more so.
How he deals with an ongoing, increasingly troublesome issue over Isco, the gifted playmaker who was visibly unhappy at being left out for the Club World Cup final, is another test ahead. There will many more for Solari.
He may be a world champion now but he knows that title comes with limited guarantees of job security.
Updated: December 23, 2018 03:18 PM