What is Real Madrid’s strongest starting XI?

With Berndt Schuster’s reign at Real Madrid barely ten games old, including pre-season friendlies, and Schuster himself shuffling the pack for rotational purposes, it is not clear which is the strongest possible Madrid eleven. What’s more, this dilemma is heightened by the fact that certain players are performing at a higher level when coming on as substitutes than when starting.

Real also have their strongest squad in recent times — the quality of “reserve” players such as Metzelder comes in stark contrast to the Raúl Bravo, Pavón and Mejia era. Perhaps the lack of a first-team is in fact a strong point of the team — the squad is massively flexible in terms of personnel and formation, and very few players are assured their spots.

What do you think is the optimal Real team, assuming that all players are fit?

For the record, this is mine:

GK: Casillas

Obvious choice.

DR: Michel Salgado

I personally wouldn’t have gotten rid of Cicinho as I feel he didn’t do a whole lot wrong in the white shirt, but in Michel Salgado Real have a consistent tough-tackling defender of the highest order. Salgado’s discipline is pretty questionable and his positioning can be woeful, but he doesn’t tend to make many crucial mistakes and often puts in important challenges. I’d expect a new right-back to come back in the next few years as the signings of Cicinho (now at Roma) and Diogo (now at Zaragoza) attest to the fact that the Real management do not see Salgado as first-choice in the long-term future (and the player is certainly getting on a bit, as is shown in his lack of pace). Or another solution is possible, with Ramos moving to right-back (I actually feel that Ramos’ vast attacking potential is wasted at centre back as Real Madrid do not, unlike Manchester United, play all of their football through the centre backs) and another centre back coming in (Cannavaro is not going to be first choice for much longer, Metzelder is a very good back up but I don’t see him as a long-term starter and Heinze is seen more as a left-back).

DL: Gabi Heinze

Gabriel Heinze edges this over Marcelo due to his experience, although young Brazilian Marcelo has come out of his first games for Real Madrid with a lot of credit. He looks everything he was billed up to be. I can’t see Heinze holding him back for too long, apart from in games in which defensive solidity is prioritized over attacking full-back play. Marcelo will need to gain more experience, that much is certain, but in terms of ability I think he has it all. Heinze was superb against Betis midweek and is beginning to look more like the player he was during his first season with Manchester United.

DC: Sergio Ramos

Because of his huge price tag, there tend to be a lot of detractors of Sergio Ramos. The reality is that Ramos is by far the most consistent of the current Real Madrid defenders (and probably of the team itself, excluding Casillas). Ramos has pace in abundance, is excellent in the air, and his positioning has improved immensely since he joined the club three years ago. There are still kinks to be ironed out, but I would expect Ramos to be a fixture in the side for years to come. I play him at centre-back at the moment, but he could equally step aside and play at right full-back, where his pace and passing ability would be better utilised. It is worth mentioning the fact that Ramos is superb at attacking balls in the air, and is always a threat at corners.

DC: Pepe

Injuries have prevented us seeing too much of Pepe, but what I have seen has been reasonably encouraging, and he was very good at Porto. Real’s defensive record is very good this season (they have conceded just three goals) and where they have looked fragile, it has normally been associated with a Cannavaro error. Cannavaro is surely on lost time and I can see him being ousted from the side when everyone is fit.

ML: Arjen Robben

Yes, injuries have prevented Robben from playing much football over the last couple of years. However, his talent is there for all to see, and he had a large impact for Los Merengues against Betis on Thursday. He is also the only genuine wide player Real possess, after letting Granero move (Drenthe plays out wide but comes into the centre with massive frequency). If he stays fit, expect Robben to be very influential this season.

Floating right/central midfielder: Wesley Sneijder

One of Real’s best players this season — only Raúl has rivalled him for consistency, if not for flair — Sneijder has quickly become essential to the Real Madrid cause, and the team suffers from a lack of fluency when he is absent. Sneijder is by no means a right-winger and is far more effective when floating, although shape demands that he spend some time on the right, despite Salgado’s readiness to join the attack.

MC: Guti

Guti has his fair share of criticism — click here to see Guillem Balague’s assessment of Guti’s inability to win a place in the Spanish national team — but it is clear that he plays a vital role in Schuster’s side (Guti, Raúl and Sergio Ramos are the only players to have played every minute of Real’s league matches this season). With two assists from five matches and an excellent passing rate, Real struggle to create in the same way when Guti absent. However, Guti’s defensive play is exceptionally limited and he can rush passes at times, trying the over-elaborate when only simple passes are necessary. For this reason he must be accompanied by a defensive-minded player (not a box-to-box man who would leave the centre of the park exposed) who does not look to do too much with the ball.

MC: Mahamadou Diarra

Diarra is a tough-tackling midfielder who never stops running. He may not be the most technically gifted player, but his passing is accurate and I am convinced that he will eventually take on Makelele’s mantle as the best defensive midfielder in the world. Diarra has missed just thirteen minutes of league football this season.

FC: Raúl

No arguments here. Raúl has rediscovered his old energy and inspires his side in the same way as Tamudo over at Espanyol. What’s more, with 3 goals in 4 games, Raúl has got his scoring touch back at the moment. I personally feel that Raúl should be included in the next Spain squad (perhaps this will happen now that Hierro is ‘supervising’ Luis Aragones?).

FC: Van Nistelrooy

Again, no arguments. Top scorer last season and, although he has yet to hit top form, a crucial component of the Real side. The only concern here is a lack of pace up front — and long-term, there could be a place for Robinho somewhere in the team.

This leaves a subs bench of 4 from Drenthe, Gago, Robinho, Higuaín, Metzelder, Cannavaro, Saviola, Marcelo — not too shabby. I’d like to hear what you have to say about what this means for the future of the likes of Higuaín, Miguel Torres and Cannavaro (are they going to stay at the club to be second — or even third — choices?).

P.S. As I’ve been writing I have been vacillating between putting Ramos at right-back or centre-back. What is your opinion on the matter?

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