To borrow one of the oldest football cliches in the book, it's been a year of two halves for Mesut Ozil.
Last season, the German playmaker could do no wrong. Everything Ozil touched turned into white gold. He finished up 2011-12 as the top assist maker in La Liga and with a championship medal to show for it. The season before, the "Wizard of Oz" had laid on more goal-scoring passes than any other player in Europe.
But this season, Ozil seems to have fallen foul of the fickle favor of Jose Mourinho. Admittedly, few have managed to evade the coach's wrath as Real's title defense has unraveled spectacularly. Even Saint Iker Casillas was forced to spend 90 minutes examining his bootlaces during the recent loss to Malaga.
But almost nobody has spent more time on the bench at one end of the game or another than Ozil. He has been substituted eight times in the league—three of which were on the 45-minute mark—and has started just two Champions League games.
Mourinho criticized some of his players for the way they spent their summer holidays and Ozil was forced to deny rumors that he was living the high life.
On the field, things started to deteriorate as early as September, when Ozil was hauled off at half time in a match against Deportivo. Sergio Ramos, in his role as Real's classroom prankster, decided to wear the German's shirt under his own for the second half.
The ever-twitching cameras of Marca spotted it and Ramos found himself explaining in a very awkward press conference that he had simply intended to dedicate his first goal of the season to his friend. How he knew if was going to come against an admittedly awful Depor he did not say.
The nadir for Ozil came after the loss to Real Betis, when Mourinho singled him out after another 45 minutes that did not please his Portuguese taskmaster. Whether it was meant as a brilliant piece of man management or a not-so-veiled threat that January isn't that far off, who can say. But it had the desired effect.
Real's summer purchase of Luka Modric was a curious acquisition. From Tottenham's point of view it was a fantastic deal: a pile of cash for a player who wanted out and a "collaboration agreement" with Real.
For Real it simply added another facet to the midfield playmaker problem. What to do with Kaka, Ozil and now the pint-sized Croat?
After dropping Ozil in favor of Modric against Manchester City, Mourinho sent them both to purgatory against Alcoyano in the King's Cup; the only two first team regulars to start the game.
If it was intended as a football dance-off for a place in the team for the derby, Ozil tapped his way into Mourinho's plans. Not quite as well as Fabrice Muamba would have done, but well enough to earn a start against Atletico.
And how he responded. Castigated just a week earlier at Betis, Ozil left the field in the second half to a standing ovation from the Bernabeu.
Despite being in and out of the team in 2012-13, Ozil has still found time to remind his employers why most clubs in Europe would take him off their hands quickly enough. His free-kicks from the right channel saved Real against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and in a bruising encounter against Valladolid.
After that match, Real assistant coach and Mourinho mouthpiece Aitor Karanka praised the German's performance.
The Ozil of the first half of 2012 seems to have been conjured by Real once again. The club will hope the same version comes back from the winter break. Without him, the team loses its most creative outlet, despite the wealth of talent it has on its bench. The second half of the season depends in no small part on how much time Ozil spends on it.
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