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Kaka return showing he's no fallen star

Real Madrid's Kaka from Brazil, left celebrates
Kaka celebrates in front of the Santiago Bernabeu after scoring for Real Madrid.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

Ricardo Kaká lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. The Real Madrid playmaker had got to the point of wondering what the point of it all was and whether things would ever get better.

 

I worked and worked, and in the end it still hurt . . . You ask yourself, 'Can I come back from this? How am I going to come back from this?'

 

“There were days you’d wake up and have no energy,” he reflected, in a documentary on his woes.

For longer than he cared to remember, his time had been spent between consultations with specialists and sessions in the gym on his own. The groin problem Kaká had aggravated towards the end of his time at Milan had relapsed, and the imbalances it created were impacting on his knee. He’d had surgery and undergone a cutting edge biomechanical study pioneered by his personal physician Toribio Leite. But still, there was no improvement.

“I worked and worked, and in the end it still hurt, it upset me. I didn’t know what to do anymore. It wasn’t only a physical injury but a mental one too. You ask yourself, ‘Can I come back from this? How am I going to come back from this? And can I get into the condition to keep playing at the highest level?’”

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It’s of great credit to Kaká and his inner resolve that he is now answering those questions in the affirmative with a series of encouraging performances. “He is beginning to look like the player [Real Madrid president] Florentino Pérez paid €65m for in 2009,” wrote Diego Torres in El País on Monday.

While optimistic, there’s justification for those words. Kaká put on what AS described as an “exhibition” during Real Madrid’s 5-0 demolition of Espanyol 10 days ago.

He forced the error that led to his team’s opening goal, twice assisted Gonzalo Higuaín, and got himself on the scoresheet by elegantly placing a shot inside the far post after picking up the ball on the edge of the area and taking on his man.

Watching the tape back, it was interesting to see how Kaká beat Espanyol defender Dídac Vilá. He didn’t do the left back with a blistering change of pace, as he perhaps would have done in the past. There was an economy to his movement, indicating that, with the wear and tear, he has lost any advantage he once had over five yards.

Kaka dribbles past Abu Diaby, Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Adebayor in 2007-08's UEFA Champions League.

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But besides the acceleration that led the head of MilanLab, Jean-Pierre Meersemann, to say back in 2008, “He’s No. 1. Nobody is faster than him”, what also distinguished Kaká as one of the best players of his generation was his ability to read the game.

In the chapter he devoted to him in his autobiography, Carlo Ancelotti wrote that, whilst Zinedine Zidane was the finest talent he’d ever coached, Kaká was a close second and without any doubt the most intelligent. “He is someone who understands things right away, who thinks at double the speed of the others, who receives the ball and already knows how the move will end.”

Kaká might no longer be able to out-run some of his quicker opponents, but he still seems more than capable of out-thinking them with anticipation, vision, and spatial awareness.

Adjustments to his game mean he perhaps isn’t as explosive or dynamic as the player who won the Ballon d’Or in 2007. Reports, however, that, at just 29, he was finished as a top class footballer now appear premature, if not overstated.

He has started in each of Real Madrid’s last four matches in La Liga. Some have argued that it’s by accident rather than any grand design of coach José Mourinho, as it has coincided with Ángel Di María being out with a recurring thigh injury.

Mourinho’s relationship with Kaká, though underpinned by mutual respect, has certainly not been free of strain. As in the case of Andriy Shevchenko at Chelsea - a player brought in at the wishes of the owner, not the manager - there’s a suspicion that if Kaká weren’t such a high profile centrerpiece of Florentino Pérez’s second Galácticos project he wouldn’t be near the team.

There was a time, though, when the exact same thing was said about Karim Benzema. Yet once the cat learned to hunt like a dog, to use one of Mourinho’s best expressions, he became his first choice striker. Following that logic, if Kaká were to reveal himself to be useful to the Special One, then there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be made part of his plans. And that’s just what he’s done.

As Cristiano Ronaldo pushes up from the right in Real Madrid's 4-2-3-1, the formation changes to a two striker-attack, approximating not only a 4-2-2-2 but the "Magic Square" formation Brazil used at the 2006 World Cup.

Real Madrid ostensibly play a 4-2-3-1, but according to the hagiographers over at Marca, Mourinho has apparently succeeded where one of his predecessors, Wanderley Luxemburgo, failed, effectively introducing the ‘Magic Square’ to his team’s tactics: a kind of 4-2-2-2, with Kaká and Mesut Özil behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Higuaín (who has recently filled in for a hurt Benzema).

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Is that an over-interpretation? In part, yes, though it’s not completely laboring under a misapprehension, as the fluidity of Real Madrid’s system can, at times and in various situations, lead one to draw this conclusion. What’s intriguing about Mourinho’s decision to play that quartet for three consecutive matches is the evident chemistry between Kaká and Özil.

“We don’t lose when Kaká and I are in the starting XI,” a more than complimentary Özil told Kicker. He’s not wrong. In the 12 games that they have lined up together, Real Madrid have won nine and drawn on the other three occasions. With them in the team from the kick off, the Spanish giants score an average of 3.88 goals per game. Without them, that ratio falls to 2.82.

It makes for a persuasive case to keep the World Cup and Champions League-winning Kaká in the team. Whether Mourinho is convinced or not remains to be seen. He might well be back on the bench for tonight’s second leg against CSKA Moscow in the last 16 of the Champions League, though if that were to be the case it would likely be down to rotation rather than any malice, given he was apparently at fault for the late equalizer Real Madrid conceded in the first leg (which ended 1-1 at the Luzhniki).

Lest we forget, Kaká has been “born again” before. After a late cameo in which he scored against Real Zaragoza at the beginning of the season, he said: “It’s not the first good game I’ve played. The only thing that I need to get back to what I once was is continuity, to play a lot of games consecutively.” Mourinho granted his wish.

Between late September and throughout October he featured regularly, contributing assists and goals. He was the inspiration behind a 3-0 win at home to Villarreal and earned a call up to the Brazil squad for the first time in over a year. The natural order of things looked as though it had been restored.

But no sooner was everything falling back into place than it fell apart again. Kaká was inexplicably left out of the starting XI for the next game away to Real Sociedad and disappointingly had to pull out of Brazil’s friendlies against Gabon in Libreville and Egypt in Doha with a calf strain. Who’s to say history won’t repeat itself?

Balance is needed in judging Kaká’s re-emergence. Caution too. Still, it’s hard not admire his determination to haul himself back from the abyss. It’s hard not to root for him. There are few, if any, nicer guys in football.

His future continues to be the subject of much speculation. First there was a reported Milan derby for his signature. That was then followed by the prospect of a reunion with Ancelotti at Paris Saint-Germain, but despite their interest and preparedness to meet any asking price Real Madrid might set, there’s a school of thought that argues an offer won’t be made, so as to protect Javier Pastore.

Throughout it all, Kaká has insisted: “I don’t want to leave because I want to triumph here.” It’s a noble sentiment. There's a David Beckham-like quality to it in that, as his career with Real Madrid persisted, it really didn’t look like he’d win anything with the club. But then he did, making a telling impact once he was welcomed back into the fold by Fabio Capello towards the end of the 2006-07 campaign, as the team went on to claim the title.

Kaká can hope for more, for longer, and for better at the Bernabéu. As a Galáctico, he’s no fallen star. Given time, his should be in the ascendency again.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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