Have Madrid finally got their man?

I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo.  Not talking about Kaka.  Not Benzema and not about Raul Albiol and Xabi Alonso.

I’m talking about Arsene Wenger.  Scratch that, I’m actually talking about Manuel Pellegrini.

Throughout Florentino Perez’ epic reign last time out, and at the very top of his hit list when he got reinstated to the role of Real Madrid president, he has coveted the Arsenal godfather more than any other.

However, when Wenger once again spurned his advances, it should really be no surprise that Perez made an immediate move to secure Manuel Pelegrini, a man who shows several similarities as Wenger himself.

Unlike Wenger, Pellegrini seemed to have a long career in football, but just like the Arsenal man, he wasn’t exactly known in worldwide circles… and just like the Arsenal man, he even got a degree in Engineering in his pre-management days.  And of course, the two managers share an attacking philosophy not seen in an era were defensive tacticality has been king for so long.

Pellegrini had not come to European attention until 2004, when he eventually took up the role at unheralded Villarreal.  Prior to this he had been making his name in this management mullark at clubs in his native Chile and Argentina.  When he took up the reigns at one of Argentina’s favourite clubs, San Lorenzo, he delivered the South American equivalent of the Uefa Cup along with an overdue League title.  Eventually he wound up at big boys River Plate, won the league title in 2003 and received international recognition for working at the legendary club.  If Spain has always been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, Argentina has been led by Boca Juniors and River Plate.

When Pellegrini took over at Villarreal, they were far from an established club.  On the outskirts of Spain’s top division until just 1998, they were relegation casualites in their maiden season.  When they made the return, they were still relegation candidates in each of the seasons they competed, barring a Uefa Cup run in between.  Not that it was a catastrophe though, this club had no history.

Enter Pellegrini, realtively obscure to European competition.  He immediately stamped his mark on the club and began building it in his image.

He plucked Uruguay striker Diego Forlan from an unhappy time playing for the red side of Manchester, where he was branded a huge flop and confidence was at a low ebb.  Pellegrini seemed to show right away his skill to be able to get the best out of players, with the “dodgy” frontman parachuting to the top of the Liga goal standings, earning the “Pichichi” honour.  Forlan has since never looked back, and is one of footballs most feared predators.  Even more impressive than turning a striker who one could say “couldn’t score in a bordello” into a feared marksman, was his acquisition of the mercurial Argentine playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme.

A gifted individual such as Riquelme had slipped under the radar somewhat at Barcelona.  He was in his mid-20’s and in his prime, but could not force a way past the established Barca stars.  His arrival at the Yellow Submarine was the latest in what was pretty much a south american side playing in La Liga. 

Riquelme’s quality sublime playmaking, along with the energetic aggressive Argentine captain Juan Pablo Sorin, the unseen talent of midfield maestro Marcos Senna and the free-scoring Diego Forlan, ensured that Pellegrini’s dynamic attacking side shocked everybody and finished third in La Liga, thus qualifying for the Champion’s League.

It says much about Villarreal that they have met Manchester United on four occasions in the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition and have never lost.  Pellegrini made his side a real force in Europe as well as La Liga.  In his second season at the helm, 2005-06, they just missed out on qualifying for the big final in Paris, going out in the semi’s. 

Big name players like Forlan, Riquelme and then goalkeeper Jose Reina all left to seek pastures new, and the Chilean had to do a rebuilding job. 

Once again he signed a striker from Old Trafford, and his name was Guiseppe Rossi.  While on loan at Parma he had made a name for himself, but he never looked a shoo-in at Old Trafford.  At Villarreal he was aloud to flourish under Pellegrini’s tutelage.

Another young gun who prospered under Pellegrini was Santi Cazorla, who made a name for himself with several substitute appearances at Euro 2008, not looking out of place with the rest of the Spanish national team’s outrageously gifted midfielders (including club team-mate and captain Marcos Senna) on their way to European Championship glory.

Turkish wizard Nihat Kahveci also arrived from Real Sociedad, and while his career at El Madrigal was plagued with injuries, he was instrumental in an 07/08 league season that saw the club break up the league’s two big clubs and finish second, securing Champion’s League qualification yet again.

By now Pellegrini was known as an attacking mastermind, a man who could get the best out of players and take an unfashionable club to dizzying new heights, and keep them there!  He was like Wenger on the continent, albeit not as trophy-laden as the Frenchman.

At this same time, Real Madrid had been going through one of their crisis’ and wholehearted changes were to be expected.  Pellegrini too, had mooted how far he could take this club.

When Florentino Perez won his next presidency, his first signing was Manuel Pellegrini, seen a real coup for the club.  Pellegrini had proved that he was up to the top jobs at Villarreal, something that Perez agreed on.

The signings of the second generation of the Galactico’s dwarfed the attention the now-former Villarreal man would receive, not that he would care.  He now has several of the best players in the world at his disposal and a chance to leave a legacy at a far more prestigious club.

The only cause for concern would have to be whether the renowned trigger-happy Perez won’t panic if things go off the boil a bit.  Throughout his last reign, Perez went through manager’s in a way that makes Mr. Abramovich at Chelsea look like the patient understanding type.  Several coaches, successful or not, had their services disposed of by the reactive President.

Current Spain national coach Vicente Del Bosque was ruthlessly disposed of after capturing the club’s 9th European Cup and another league title in successive season’s, deemed to be not fashionable enough to continue his presence.  His replacement, Carlos Queiroz, had proved to not be up to the task and was gone a year later.  Wanderlay Luxemburgo had proved not alot better, and was gone after afew shirt months.  After that they had a succession of caretaker-coaches as the Perez galactico project imploded, and his departure was akin to Napolean being forced into exile.  Not for long however, as Ramon Calderon’s meandering reign spiralled out of control and Perez had his second chance.

Not just coaches but the players too were not safe from his meddling.  Madrid hero Fernando Morientes fell to the wayside along with club legend and captain Fernando Hierro.  The most high profile Perez affair however was his refusal to grant engine man Claude Makelele (an unfashionable fellow who wouldn’t contribute greatly to shirt sales) an improved contract.  As it went, Makelele located to London were Chelsea were happy to give him what he felt he was worth.  Surprisingly, Chelsea went through the best period in club history.  Zinedine Zidane was quoted as saying “how can the train move without the oil that holds it all together” in response to the departure.  As it turned out, Madrid were never the same force again and have been looking for the new Makelele since!

But all of this is the past!  Florentino Perez has stated that he has learnt from the previous galactico era, and he comes across as an unegotistical character despite earning his billions in the contruction industry, admitting that mistakes were made.  And so far, you would say that he is going in the right way, bringing in as many defensive thinking players, such as Albiol, Garay and Arbeloa, along with the defensive sitting but creative linchpin Xabi Alonso, as his flair attacking phenomenoms.  Madrid might take a while to get over the negative psyche that has infiltrated their defensive side of the last few years, but at least big strides are being made.

So far it seems to be going to plan, they have won their first 5 Liga matches, plundering in 17 goals with only 3 against, twinned with an emphatic 5-2 away victory in European competition.  Pellegrini might turn out to be the Wenger that Madrid have always drooled over after all?

A testament to Pellegrini might be the disastrous start of his now vacated Villarreal, who lie second from bottom thus far without a win to their name.  Clearly they miss the man who changed the landscape of the club.

With a seemingly endless pot of money to improve his new team as his reign progresses, Manuel Pellegrini has been entrusted to overhaul a Barcelona side that shook Real to their very core and called for drastic changes.  Can he do it?  Or will Florentino Perez wield the kife at the first sign of trouble?  Whatever the case, this is why La Liga has been grabbing the headlines!

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  1. phantompong 28 September, 2009
  2. David Scullion 4 October, 2009
  3. Ryan McManus 4 October, 2009