Real Madrid will take la liga more serious than expected
The 2019-20 season will go down in football history as one of the strangest. The title will be won by the players as always, but the physios who prepared them for the 11 games in 39 days in soaring temperatures will have played a bigger part than ever.
As Spain’s Diario AS put it on Tuesday, Real Madrid’s Gregory Dupont believes there is only one way to go about preparing for the rest of the campaign – treat it like a World Cup.
The 47-year-old fitness guru – known in the game as the ‘Scientist’ for his commitment to, and willingness to use, the latest sports science investigation – knows a thing or two about successfully preparing a group of players for such a tournament: he was France’s physio in Russia two years ago as they lifted the World Cup.
‘I trust the science and I try to put it into practice in sport,’ he says of his methods. ‘Fifteen years ago there was not that knitting together of the two fields.’
A modest player in the Belgian leagues before dedicating himself to preparing players, Dupont’s single biggest challenge is to get the best out of Eden Hazard.
The former Chelsea forward might well be the difference between Real Madrid eliminating Barcelona’s two-point lead over them, and winning the league. He knows Hazard well from his time as Lille physio where both men first caught they eye for being exceptional at what they did.
Dupont was signed by Real Madrid at the start of this season in a bid to make the team better physically. Zinedine Zidane had returned to the club but did not want his previous physio Antonio Pintus working with him into the new campaign.
Pintus had prepared the players during three straight Champions League successes but Zidane had not liked the fact that when he left the club in 2018 Pintus was the only member of his staff who did not leave with him.
Pintus stayed at Madrid but was given a less important role by incoming Julen Lopetegui who came in with his own fitness coaches from the Spain team. Pintus might have been given the reins once more when Zidane returned but instead he turned to Dupont.
Zidane wanted a more physically powerful Madrid – that much was clear with his signing of Ferland Mendy to eventually replace Marcelo and the fast-tracking of midfield beast Fede Valverde.
The club were also very keen to reduce the injury list that had weakened the squad during the 2018-19 campaign. France had picked up no injuries in Russia and been one of the fittest sides at the World Cup.
Dupont had passed the test in the first half of the season. Madrid were fitter and stronger than in the previous campaign.
Hazard was perhaps the exception, struggling to get up to speed in pre-season and then picking up injuries through the campaign including one that seemed to have written off his season until the coronavirus pandemic took hold and changed everything.
Dupont must now, like his players, go again. One more almighty push to get Madrid over the finish line ahead of Barcelona.
He knew right from the first session back on Monday May 11, after 57 days of lockdown, that this task was bigger, more difficult than any he had faced before. There would be more games than in a World Cup. It would be every bit as hot as most summer tournament venues, and there would be just as much at stake.
A plague of injuries were predicted by many. Lopetegui, the Sevilla coach warned: ‘There is a precedent in American Football. The National Football League (NFL) in 2011, had a break of about three months due to a labour dispute, and they had 12 Achilles tendon ruptures in the first month of competition.’
Dupont started with a full complement of players barring Luka Jovic, who broke a bone in his foot before the players returned to training, and Mariano Diaz.
With two weeks to go before the season begins again everyone else is available. The first weeks back have been difficult. Players have had the psychological handicap of working alone before group training was reintroduced last week.
The need for gloves, masks, frequent handwashing, social distancing and detergent-scrubbed balls has made the whole process stranger than it has ever been. And because in lockdown players have been working with their own private fitness coaches Dupont had to try to bring everyone to the same level meaning pushing harder with some players than others, while pushing no one too far.
Marca reported on Monday that 28 players, spread between 14 clubs, have reported injuries since training was resumed three weeks ago. Nacho, Isco and Fede Valverde have all had to ease up at times since returning because of muscle tweaks but all remain with the group.
Dupont is now ready to step up training this week as Madrid prepare for their first game back against Eibar on June 14. More than ever before perhaps, a team’s title tilt is in the hands of its trusted physio.