Kaka’s quest to rediscover fitness, form and greatness at Real Madrid

It was December 2007 and Ricardo Kaka had just received the Ballon d’Or to recognise his key role in Milan’s Champions League winning team. The future was bright for the 25-year-old, widely recognised as the best player in the world, who not only led, but wholly defined Milan’s European success that year.

Fast-forward three-and-a-half years and Kaka faces a fight to recapture a first-team position at Real Madrid, let alone the form that earned him a €68.5m move to the Santiago Bernabeu.

Since his success in Italy, Kaka has failed to maintain game-changing form and has been usurped in the global pecking order by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Midway through his first, uninterrupted, injury-free pre-season in Spain, can the Brazilian finally establish himself as an integral part of the Real Madrid team?

Kaka is now 29 and there is a feeling that it is now or never for the player to re-launch his reputation. At his peak, there is no doubt that the former Sao Paulo player was a fearsome physical specimen – the similarly athletic midfielder Steven Gerrard once described him as the “one player I couldn’t get near.” The sharpness of his movement, married with polished technical ability, is what separated him from his peers. However, injury has taken its toll on the trequartista in recent years, particularly in the case of a longstanding knee problem that required surgery in August 2010. The graph below highlights his ever-decreasing number of games since 2004/05.

This summer Kaka takes part in his first full pre-season since joining Madrid in 2009, an element that may prove pivotal in enabling the midfielder to perform to the best of his abilities. Coach Mano Menezes’ decision to drop him from Brazil’s Copa America squad was partly taken on the basis that it would offer the Madridista the best course of preparation for the upcoming season and beyond. As the player highlighted: “for me it is very important taking part in training, last year was very different for me. Every day I am improving, I feel better physically.”

Whilst Jose Mourinho has always been publicly supportive of his injury-prone star, his patience is likely to wear thin if improvements are not forthcoming. In October he stated that: “Kaka will make the difference for Real Madrid. He will be our purchase in January at no cost and will be crucial for us.” With seven goals in 14 league games last season, the attacking midfielder was productive but remained wholly unconvincing. The uncertainty over his ability is perhaps best reflected in another mixed bag of performances in pre-season immediately prompting further transfer speculation. The player concedes that he has been short on self-belief recently and of the importance in retaining the support of his Coach: “I am very happy to be working – slowly I have more confidence. I think I need a lot of confidence.”

There is also the question of where he fits into the Madrid line-up, with the trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil all shining last year behind the striker. Ozil’s place behind the single striker is in particular a position Kaka made his own at the San Siro. In the Bernabeu, under Mourinho, it has been Ozil to take the position, and characterise it more for creative purposes as a trequartista, than Kaka’s interpretation as more of a second striker.

The goal-scoring support from the attacking three behind the striker in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is best displayed by Ronaldo who positively embraces the role. For Kaka, there is the feeling that his game will need to either return, or adapt, in light not only of his injury troubles that may have removed that burst of pace previously important to his success, but of Mourinho’s preference for a completely different style of player in his preferred role.

Indeed, should Kaka prove unable to rediscover the blistering acceleration on the back of his strongest preparation period in years, or change his style of play to compensate, he will almost certainly struggle to cement a first-team place in Mourinho’s increasingly competitive squad and may be forced to look elsewhere to play the central role he once enjoyed at Milan.

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