The early signs indicate that Julen Lopetegui’s Real Madrid will offer a far greater challenge in La Liga than last season as they bid to make it three wins from three by beating Leganes (10.45pm kick-off on Saturday) before the international break.
However, Leganes – who dumped Real out of the Copa del Rey last season – are no slouches.
IS MARIANO THE RIGHT MATCH?
Signing a second striker is a conundrum for many top teams – he needs to be happy enough to play a rotational role but good enough to keep standards high.
In France he flourished playing alongside Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay in a deadly triumvirate, often driving from deep with his pace and peppering the goal with long-range strikes.
The year he spent away brought him 18 goals and undoubtedly the polish that should see him contribute straight away. Indeed, having committed up to €30 million to bring him back, as well as handing him the No7 shirt vacated by Ronaldo, he’ll have to.
In many ways he is a curious fit as back-ups for Benzema go. Mariano does not take as much joy in the link-up game as his French team-mate does and is far more of a maverick on the ball. His speed and skill will be a huge asset off the bench but he can be careless in possession and that is seemingly anathema to Lopetegui’s new pass-first philosophy.
As a striker at the tip of the spear, that should matter less. Perhaps though there is something in Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas’ admission that he was taken aback when an offer came in from Real, after Florentino Perez had confided in him that the 25-year-old didn’t match Madrid’s ‘desired profile’.
We’ll soon find out if the Dominican is truly made of the right stuff with a congested fixture list looming.
ISCO NEEDS TO JOIN THE DISCO
Lopetegui is likely to wait until after the international break to restore Luka Modric to the starting XI after his mammoth, Golden Ball-winning World Cup campaign.
If so then the game against Leganes, hardly a heavyweight tie on paper, could see two Spanish maestros slug it out for supremacy.
Marco Asensio has capitalised on Ronaldo’s departure in an attacking trident alongside Benzema and Bale, providing thrust from the left and completing a staggering 94 per cent of his passes in La Liga so far.
Isco, who many believed would be at the epicentre of Lopetegui’s revolution, has not stood out so far and been guilty of overplaying at times in the midfield three. On form alone it makes little sense for Isco to squeeze Asensio out when Modric returns to the middle of the park.
There is of course no chances that Isco will become a bit-part player, but as Lopetegui searches for his ideal line-up with bigger challenges ahead, the 26-year-old could do with putting down a marker on Saturday ahead of the international break.
THEY’VE GOT THE LEGS FOR IT
Little old Leganes at the Bernabeu. No chance? Think again.
Los Pepineros beat Real in front of their own fans to dump them out of the Copa del Rey last season – just when Zinedine Zidane’s side were desperate for some good news – and it was no fluke too.
Leganes did not allow them a shot on target in the first-half as they emerged with a 2-1 victory. Real won the La Liga fixture by that scoreline but had fewer shots on target than their far less illustrious neighbours.
To an extent both clubs have wiped the slate clean over the summer, with former Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino busy implementing a well-drilled, tactically astute set-up that will serve Leganes well in the mid-table battle.
They were incredibly unfortunate not to come away with a point at Athletic Bilbao after Iker Muniain struck in injury-time and they asserted dominance over Real Sociedad at home but could only draw 2-2 after two early sucker-punches.
Left-back Diego Rico and midfielder Gabriel departed for Bournemouth and Benfica respectively over the summer but Pellegrino has had backing in the market.
Jose Arnaiz, bought by Barcelona but never utilised last season, is an intriguing prospect on the wing, as is Youssef En-Nesyri from Malaga – who scored against Spain at the World Cup.
And then there’s Southampton loanee Guido Carrillo, who Pellegrino worked with in England, as well as Diego Rolan from Deportivo.
Real’s teenage keeper Andriy Lunin will also start his La Liga journey with Leganes after the two clubs meet on Saturday.
Pellegrino then has a strong foundation to work with and the new arrivals should help a side that was moribund in attack last season. Don’t expect a rollover at the Bernabeu.
“When someone like Cristiano leaves there is always going to be a spotlight on who is going to replace him goal-wise and threat-wise,” Giggs said of his fellow Welshman.
“It’s a massive void to fill but Gareth has the experience now of being at the club for a long time. Every year there is pressure on him and he has handled it brilliantly.
“Gareth has shown his qualities in big games and that he can handle anything that is thrown at him.”
Bale scored his 29th international goal earlier this year to become Wales’ top scorer, going past Ian Rush’s record.
The 29-year-old has been selected for Wales’ 25-man squad for the UEFA League of Nations clashes against Ireland and Denmark, and his form has been a source of delight for his national-team manager.
“He has started this season on fire,” Giggs said. “But there’s never really a time when he is not playing well.
“I think always the problem with Gareth is that when he has been injured, he’s then had to come back and get more game time. But when he plays, he always plays well and more or less scores.”
The two exchanged messages when Ronaldo agreed his July move to Juventus, but as it was the summer, the player and club president weren’t able to bid each other a proper farewell – and there was slight controversy over the fact that Ronaldo, the club’s record goalscorer, didn’t get a farewell press conference.
Perez is reportedly looking to bring some normality to the relationship after that perceived snub.
Both will be in attendance for the Champions League draw in Monaco on Thursday, as the winner of the UEFA player of the year award will also be announced. Ronaldo is up against Liverpool‘s Mohamed Salah and former Madrid team-mate Luka Modric.