January 7, 2011
Kaka could make a Real difference
By BRIAN WESTFALL, Sports Network
Real Madrid has been incredible under Jose Mourinho, as one loss in 23 matches between La Liga and the Champions League makes evident, but to construct another special season, he needs to get the best out of Kaka.
Just a few short years ago, Kaka was considered the best player on the planet. He won the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or in 2007, ahead of Lio Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Unlike Messi, who won both awards in 2009, and Ronaldo, who won both awards in 2008, Kaka has been relatively quiet the last few seasons as injuries left the talented Brazilian on the sideline more often than not.
Kaka himself admitted this week he was "afraid" he would never return from the latest setback, knee surgery last summer. "I thought about when I was going to come back or if I ever would," he said.
So, in one sense the 15 minutes he played Monday in his first action since the World Cup last summer was an important first step, but only a small step. Real and Mourinho have found an impressive option in place of Kaka in Mesut Ozil.
Mourinho will be hesitant to rip the German international out of the spot he's made his own over the first half of the season, meaning Kaka could struggle to find a starting role alongside Ronaldo, who leads La Liga with 19 goals.
"I must now earn a spot," Kaka, who also had a groin problem, admitted.
Although Mourinho has gotten more out of less-talented players, having such an incredible talent in Kaka at his disposal has to be exciting. And even if Kaka can't displace Ozil in midfield, there is the option to play him at striker.
"It won't be a problem if I have to play closer to the goal," he said. "We'll have to wait and see how the coach builds the team."
Although not considered his ideal position, it's hard to argue against using a player who led the Champions League with 10 goals in 2006-07, and led Milan to the title. He played both roles with Milan before his $93.5 million transfer.
Mourinho used Kaka as a replacement for Karim Benzema, the one healthy striker remaining on the roster, on Monday and he expects to gradually extend his time on the pitch by about five minutes each match.
"Kaka has recovered from his injury," he said, "but his functional recovery is a different matter."
Considering Kaka has been injured for almost a year, spent the last six months completely sidelined and previously hadn't played for Real in eight months, it is not a shock to think it will take many weeks to regain his form.
Even a former World Player of the Year has to prove his worth, especially at a team like Real. And there's no guarantee he'll ever be world-class again. You can just look at fellow Brazilian Ronaldinho to see how fast the mighty fall.
But with only Benzema to beat at striker, Kaka has a chance to claim a crucial role for Madrid and grab the job vacated by striker Gonzalo Higuain, sidelined two months after back surgery, should Mourinho choose to deploy him there.
Just getting Kaka back on the field in the 3-2 win over Getafe was huge -- even if Mourinho realizes there's a lot of work to do. But if Madrid plans to make the La Liga title its own and win the Champions League, Kaka has to be the answer.
Real lost its most important game of the first half of the season 5-0 to rival Barcelona, as it missed that something special Mourinho always instills in his teams. Don't be shocked if Mourinho gets pay back when there's more at stake.
Inter Milan didn't look like a contender for the Champions League last season, but Mourinho won the tournament for the second time -- he also won in 2004 with FC Porto -- to add to the Serie A and Coppa Italia titles.
Real lured Mourinho to Madrid to end its Champions League drought, which dates back to 2002. And even on a team with so much talent, Kaka could take the club to a different level if he makes a seamless transition into the lineup.
Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, players who left Madrid last summer on moves to eventual Champions League finalists Inter and Bayern Munich, respectively, were the missing pieces for their clubs.
Kaka could be the difference for Madrid.
"He is a super player," Mourinho stated, but "he still hasn't reached his full potential."
If he does, it could be another special season for Mourinho and Real.