Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema must become more selfish in place of Cristiano Ronaldo

Chris Bailey 18/08/2018
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Real Madrid start a new La Liga season without Cristiano Ronaldo for the first time in a decade on Sunday.

Thankfully for new coach Julen Lopetegui, a home clash against a limited if stubborn Getafe should ease the club into a new era after the midweek UEFA Super Cup defeat to city rivals Atletico.

Or will it be that simple?

KARIM OF THE CROP

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Super Cup

It could work one of two ways for Karim Benzema. The absence of Ronaldo will either unshackle him or defenders will wrap him in extra restraints.

Benzema has done an incredible amount of unselfish work for Ronaldo, providing more assists to CR7 in La Liga than anyone else, but it doesn’t excuse the Frenchman’s goal-shy contributions.

Five league goals in 2017/18 is pitiful by any top striker’s standards and it brings to mind the refrain from Jose Mourinho, who famously lamented having to ‘hunt with a cat’ in Karim instead of a dog in Gonzalo Higuain when the Argentine succumbed to injury.

There is hope though Benzema can get his claws out for the new season – and he must, given there is little competition or even back-up for the central striker role.

Benzema’s best La Liga goalscoring campaign was in 2014/15, when he hit the back of the net 24 times. Promisingly Real mostly lined up in a 4-3-3 – Lopetegui’s weapon of choice thus far – though it was nominal given Ronaldo would nearly always drift in.

Much of his best moments were supplied by Gareth Bale, which could inform success this time around. The Welshman’s penchant for width and ‘weak-footed’ deliveries from the right found the onrushing Benzema many a time.

With Marco Asensio or the ultimate team player in Isco operating from the left, Benzema will get chances. Will he cough up goals or airballs?

BBA OR BB ISCO?

Marco-Asensio

Don’t be fooled – Real’s Super Cup collapse in Tallinn did not signify a passing of the Spanish capital’s torch to Atleti. This would have been a draw over 90 minutes and it was hapless defending more than anything that precipitated Los Blancos’ downfall on the night.

It is important to note though that as soon as Casemiro came off, Diego Costa scored the late equaliser. Lopetegui may be intent on introducing a possession-based system at the Bernabeu but it does not mean he can afford to sideline Real’s stick of defensive dynamite.

His place is assured, even against Getafe, with only little-used Marcos Llorente of a similar ilk among Madrid’s ranks. This carries a knock-on effect to the entire team.

Luka Modric is not yet fit enough to take his place among the starting XI which means Isco and Toni Kroos will accompany Casemiro in a 4-3-3. BBC has turned into BBA with Bale, Benzema and Asensio lining up from right to left in the forward line.

So what happens when Modric is fully fit? There will be rotation without question but in pre-season Asensio, though predominately operating on the left, linked up sumptuously with Bale.

If Isco is the hub of his proposed team, does he sacrifice Asensio when Modric is fit? Or shoehorn him into a No10 role and leave the midfield even more vulnerable? If Asensio fires from the off it’ll be an early conundrum for Lopetegui.

GET SET FOR A TEST

Malaga v Getafe - La Liga

Jose Bordalas set impossible standards on Getafe’s return to La Liga. Eighth place came out of precisely nowhere last season.

Naturally the path to success wasn’t pretty, as Bordalas slapped cement in-between the relatively inferior material at his disposal to make his side incredibly unforgiving.

They conceded just 33 times – the best record of everyone sans Atletico and Barcelona – but barely mustered more than a goal a game on average (42 in 38).

The Madrid minnows have lost few players of real importance over the summer besides midfielder Faycal Fajr, instead investing more than €20 million in net spend. The likes of Mexico defender Oswaldo Alanis and young Serbia anchorman Nemanja Maksimovic fortifies a squad with both quality and depth.

The turnover in personnel may disrupt their rhythm for last season, however – Real may be catching them at a good time.

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Luka Modric 'couldn't be happier' at Real Madrid, says club director Emilio Butragueno

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Luka Modric.

Real Madrid legend Emilio Butragueno says midfielder Luka Modric is happy at the club, amid speculation of a blockbuster transfer to Inter Milan.

The Croatian midfielder, who won the Golden Ball at this summer’s World Cup, made his first appearance of the season on Wednesday, coming on as a second-half substitute during Madrid’s 4-2 loss to city rivals Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

Butragueno, who is also a club director at Madrid, believes Modric will stay in the Spanish capital, despite his agent saying this week that the 32-year-old is keen on a Serie A switch.

“There is no issue with Modric,” Butragueno told Movistar+.

“He couldn’t be happier to continue playing for Real Madrid.”

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How Real Madrid will succeed or fail without Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga

Chris Bailey 17/08/2018
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And then there were three. If there was any doubt that Atletico Madrid could mount a serious La Liga challenge this year, it was expunged in Estonia the moment Diego Costa lashed a grenade past Keylor Navas.

The UEFA Super Cup is a tame curtain-raiser compared to what will come but there is a sense that Atleti proved they can go the distance in the title race after dispatching Real Madrid after extra-time.

Reigning champions Barcelona have freshened up an aging squad and Julen Lopetegui, who suffered the trauma of being sacked by Spain after being handed the Real reins, must smooth out the Cristiano Ronaldo aftershocks.

We sum up the reasons for and against all three clubs hoisting the trophy come May – below is Real’s turn. Check out the assessment of Atletico Madrid here.

WHY THEY WILL WIN LA LIGA

GarethBale (3)

Zinedine Zidane’s sense of timing was immaculate. After winning a third Champions League in a row, the only way to go from there was downhill.

Even though his tactical mind was often unfairly undermined during his tenure there was a need for fresh ideas for players who had grown too comfy with success. Do-or-die European games stir the blood in a way La Liga games against the likes of plucky Girona simply don’t, but Julen Lopetegui’s sweeping changes can flush out the cobwebs.

His arrival from the Spain set-up should also imbue Isco and Marco Asensio with confidence in a more possession-based game, while Gareth Bale – barring injury – has shown signs he can star in the absence of Ronaldo. Indeed, Ronaldo or not, their first XI still radiates with magnificence.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN LA LIGA

Luka-Modric

Losing Ronaldo was bad enough but more worrying than losing his unparalleled quality is Real have failed to find a replacement full stop. Their options in central attack are paper thin, as even if Karim Benzema finds his goalscoring boots, Borja Mayoral is unlikely to strike fear in defences.

Further back, Lopetegui failed to convince Mateo Kovacic to stick around and there is worry Luka Modric is not fully committed given the recent Inter Milan rumours. A lack of depth also persists behind Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos in defence.

It is bizarre Los Blancos expended so much energy in signing a keeper in Thibaut Courtois when there are so many obvious needs elsewhere. Florentino Perez must act before the transfer window deadline catches up with him.

KEY STORYLINE

Lopetegui is relishing the challenge of leading Real Madrid in the -Ronaldo era.
Ronaldo doesn’t need to be in the Spanish capital to still be the biggest story of the season. Will it be a case of coping or flourishing without his presence?

Certainly there has been more of an emphasis in pre-season on playing through Bale, who can cut defenders to shreds either down the touchline or cutting back inside. He must remain fit or at least functional.

Asensio is taking up what was Ronaldo’s position in his younger days, on the left of a 4-3-3. With Isco as a free-roaming No10 it’s certainly easier on the eye –  but Ronaldo is the ultimate in substance over style. It remains to be seen which side of the coin this team lands.

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