Homecoming for Real youngsters
While their big-name signings like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema have been dominating the headlines this pre-season, Los Blancos have also been boosting their squad by bringing back several of their most talented former youth players. The return of Esteban Granero, Alvaro Negredo and most recently Alvaro Arbeloa has added extra strength to a dressing room which already boasts former youth-academy graduates Raul, Casillas, Guti and Miguel Torres.
In his last interview with FIFA.com a few months ago, Real Madrid and Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas talked about "bringing together players who can compete at European level" and seemed to be looking though a crystal ball as he continued: "in the future I would like there to be more home-grown players brought through."
Spirit of Los Blancos
New coach Manuel Pellegrini has begun using home-grown players in his first 11, and youngsters like Granero in midfield and striker Negredo have been taking full advantage of their pre-season playing time to leave their Chilean coach with some tough selection choices. Both players made impressive debuts for Los Merengues in a recent Peace Cup match againt Ecuadorean outfit Liga de Quito.
"Young players have to try that bit harder and take full advantage of any pre-season playing time," Granero told FIFA.com, before offering some words of thanks to his supporters: "I’m very grateful to the fans for their encouragement and I hope to repay it through hard work, ambition and by giving them plenty to cheer about."
His team-mate Negredo had a particularly memorable debut as he managed to get on the scoresheet. "It was a marvellous feeling to step out into the Santiago Bernabeu for the first time, it was a great game and I’m extremely proud to have scored on my debut." And although he knows all too well that breaking into the first team when competing against the likes of Raul, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Benzema is a massive task, the 23-year-old is dogged in his determination: "As long as I’m a Real Madrid player, I’m going to fight for my place every single day."
A year his junior, Granero is a product of the Real Madrid youth system, and rose through the underage categories before making his debut for the club’s reserve side, Real Madrid Castilla, in the 2006-2007 season. The following year he was loaned to Getafe where he was much-lauded for his skill and vision, and played a prominent role in Los Azulones' UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey campaigns. He even made his mark with a goal in the 2008 Copa del Rey final against Valencia, although it was not enough to prevent Getafe suffering their second consecutive cup final defeat.
Negredo was brought up in the Vallecas neighbourhood of Madrid and was one of the top scorers in the Spanish second division with Real Madrid B. His striking potential caught the interest of several clubs, and he finally signed for Almeria where he had two bumper seasons, netting 32 times in 65 games.
The road home
The latest addition to Los Blancos is ex-Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeola, who also learnt his trade in the Madrid youth teams. Three years after leaving for Deportivo la Coruna and then Rafael Benitez’s Reds, Arbeloa is returning to his roots. "Leaving the club to later return is the longest route, but the most effective one. As is the case with many big clubs, youngsters graduating from the youth academies are not quite ready to compete with the best players in the world. One of the best ways to develop is to leave the club in order to gain first-team experience elsewhere. Several of us have gone down that road, and although it may be a long one, it is perhaps the best option," he told the media upon arrival in Madrid.
Like his fellow Spanish internationals and Brazilian Kaka, Arbeloa has not yet started for Pellegrini’s side due to his participation in the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 in June, but will surely be among the starting 11 in next season’s new-look Real Madrid.