It was pretty clear who James Rodriguez was talking about, when speaking angrily after starring and scoring for Colombia in last Thursday’s 1-1 World Cup 2018 qualifier in Chile.
Moments after completing what was his first 90 minutes of action since late August, James made it clear he himself had no concerns over his current level of fitness.
“I'm fine,” he said. “At Madrid I am training well, so I am ready for more 90 minutes. I started off hard and well, [a message] for those who keep saying that I'm not fit.”
Few observers back in the Spanish capital had any doubt who this message was aimed at. James and Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez did not get off on the right foot, and their relationship has not improved over the first four months of the season.
The issues began when James arrived at pre-season training later than most of his teammates, due to his Copa America commitments with Colombia last summer. This meant the €80 million summer 2014 signing from Monaco did not get to take a full part in Rafa’s initial tactical planning for the year.
So the 2015/16 campaign began with James on the bench, and Gareth Bale playing in a new position as a roving number 10 - as Madrid drew 0-0 at Sporting Gijon on La Liga’s opening day. Reports quickly emerged that the former Porto and Monaco player was not happy with being a substitute. The following weekend he did start though – and made his case to keep his place by scoring two superb goals as Real Betis were thrashed 5-0 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
The next setback came during the first international break of the season, when James tore a thigh muscle playing for Colombia in a friendly against Peru. The time out was then extended after suffering another problem in training. As weeks passed, Benitez was repeatedly asked when the playmaker would be coming back, and kept replying that the recovery was going well but no risks would be taken.
This meant James was training with his teammates, but not featuring in games. A few days after watching the whole of Paris Saint Germain’s Champions League Bernabeu visit early this month from the bench, the frustration was evident as he told reporters at a GQ awards ceremony “I’ve been ready to play for two weeks now.”
But James was again a substitute for Madrid’s trip to Sevilla just before the international break. He presumably noticed how Bale, who had returned to training later following his own muscle issues, was immediately returned straight to the starting XI. With 27 minutes remaining, and his team struggling badly at 2-1 down, James was finally thrown in for his first action in 71 days. He was one of the few Blancos players to show real fighting spirit and rifled in a super shot to get the score back to 3-2 in injury time.
Speaking after that game Benitez, instead of praising such an exemplary show of spirit and resilience, again stressed that James was not yet in top condition.
“We saw today James is a great player, has quality in the final metres,” Benitez said. “[But] he still needs work and time to get his best rhythm back.”
That brings us back to those heated comments made last week in Santiago. The Madrid-based media have unsurprisingly taken up the idea of a feud between galactico and coach. It was also no real shock when an apparently well-sourced story appeared in AS claiming the player’s representatives [i.e. superagent Jorge Mendes] felt he was being undervalued by the club.
The story claimed that James is a [relatively] mid-ranking earner in the Bernabeu pay-scale, taking home €4.5-6 million a year alongside Brazilian defenders Pepe and Marcelo, French youngster Raphael Varane, and [relatively] low-profile Croatia midfielder Luka Modric. He, and presumably Mendes too, now feels he should be up around the €10 million mark with Bale and club captain Sergio Ramos.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo earns more at Madrid, but you can easily argue James is now Madrid’s second best player. His first season at Madrid brought 13 goals and 13 assists in 29 appearances, and when on the pitch he has been the team’s outstanding attacker so far this term. Just 151 minutes of playing time have brought three goals - all excellent finishes.
At still just 24 he should be getting better and better – and would surely not lack suitors should he think of leaving Madrid. Given the continuing speculation that one or both of Ronaldo and Bale could be moving on next summer, club president Florentino Perez would presumably like to have James content and settled.
And so to Rafa's selection dilemma for Saturday’s clash with Barcelona at the Bernabeu, when for the first time since September all Madrid's big attacking stars should be available. Ronaldo, Bale, Isco, Jese Rodriguez, Modric and Toni Kroos have not been on international duty this week, allowing them to spend time preparing mentally and tactically for Rafa’s long-awaited first Clasico.
James has a second huge World Cup qualifier with Colombia at home to Argentina on Tuesday, followed by a long flight back to Spain, meaning he will only have a couple of training sessions at most before the weekend.
Benitez has been characteristically stubborn when asked, repeatedly over recent months, about his relationship with James. The former Liverpool and Chelsea manager is not easily swayed by outside concerns, nor is he the type to put an arm around a player’s shoulder and assure them of his love.
James is a quiet guy, but also fiercely driven and stubborn himself. He's likely to be on the Madrid bench again on Saturday, and he's unlikely to be too happy about it.