Real Madrid: 5 Most Obvious Areas for Improvement in 2013
Real Madrid have fewer reasons to welcome in the new year than most. Trailing Barcelona by 16 points, Jose Mourinho's team faces a disconsolate second half to the domestic season and a far-from-straightforward path to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Win that competition, and the season will be considered a success. Fail, and even the consolation of the King's Cup won't smooth the ruffled feathers of Madridismo.
Mourinho has little power over the injuries that have undermined the domestic campaign, but he does have the opportunity to get some cover in January. Here are five areas of the field where Real could use a little backup.
A Real Challenger for Iker Casillas
Has Iker Casillas grown complacent? It wouldn't be that surprising, as the Spain and Real captain has never had, what could be called, real competition.
Dropped against Malaga, the first time in a decade that "Saint Iker" had been left out for "tactical" reasons, Casillas will be back in goal against Real Sociedad at the weekend. Antonio Adan will certainly be nowhere near the sticks when Manchester United comes to town.
Casillas is still young in goalkeeping terms, and although he intimated that he might fancy a stint in the MLS at some point, he is unlikely to leave until semi-retirement beckons. A viable backup keeper is needed to keep Casillas on his toes until then. Adan is not that keeper. Neither was Jerzy Dudek.
The Left-Back Conundrum
Marcelo is a fine attacking full-back, although question marks remain over his defensive attributes.
Fabio Coentrao is excellent at reading the game but lacks Marcelo's offensive punch.
Both are currently injured and are due to return to action in mid-January. That being the case, Real will not move for cover during the window. But injuries and return dates are not an exact science. What is certain is that any delay in the pair's recovery will mean more of Michael Essien at left-back, which would make Sir Alex Ferguson's year.
An early move just in case is not out of the question, and with Lille tying prodigy Lucas Digne down to a new contract, Ashley Cole's contract situation at Chelsea might be of interest to his old boss. Cole is free to talk to foreign clubs from January 1 about a summer move, but Mourinho may decide that he could be useful earlier than that.
A Set-Piece Defensive Coach
Arsenal used to be a soft touch from set pieces. They promoted former defender and academy coach Steve Bould to assistant manager to shore up the back line a bit, and it has largely worked.
This season, Real have conceded almost half of their goals from dead-ball situations. Drafting in a specialist to address this problem before the Champions League tie against Manchester United wouldn't be a bad idea at all.
A Bit of Bite in Midfield
Real are a wonderfully fluent machine when counterattacking. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira provide the platform for Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria to launch devastating raids into the opposition half.
But this season, it hasn't been as effective, and Mourinho admitted that playing Borussia Dortmund was tricky because their styles are so similar.
Real have also found that well-organized and motivated teams, like Valladolid and Betis, can stifle and frustrate their forward motion. Real lack the sort of player who can offer a different option, a box-to-box type who doesn't mind getting his shorts dirty when needed.
Beñat Etxebarria is one such player. Marouane Fellaini is another.
Some Backup Firepower
Much the same as the Spanish government, strikers seem to have been an issue ever since Mourinho arrived in Madrid.
One player who has been mentioned more than once is Fernando Llorente. The Athletic striker is not so much out of favor at the San Mames club as he is positively outcast, and his contract expires in the summer.
Athletic would surely like to get something for their want-away forward rather than let him leave for nothing. Real have excellent forwards in Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain but not much after that; Alvaro Morata is not yet ready to fill the breach.
Llorente to Real would seem a sensible fit for both parties, and the Spain striker has had plenty of practice at sitting on the bench this season already, when he's made it even that far.