After a difficult preseason, Real Madrid kick off their La Liga campaign with a trip to take on last season’s strugglers Celta Vigo on Saturday evening.
Manager Zinedine Zidane is heading into the encounter surrounded by doubts after struggling to get the team back on track since his reappointment in March, and the next couple of weeks will be dominated by talk of the transfer market as the French coach seeks to strengthen his squad.
For now, though, Zidane will have to settle for the group of players he has, and he has been dealt a big blow ahead of Saturday’s trip to Vigo with the loss of summer signing Eden Hazard through injury. The question of how he will deal with that absence kicks off our key talking points ahead of the game.
Will football finally overshadow speculation?
Rarely can Real Madrid have headed into a new season with the focus so firmly fixed upon players who do not belong to the club. But that’s certainly the case right now, with Zidane facing extensive questioning over potential moves for Neymar and Paul Pogba during his pregame press conference on Friday.
Zidane’s preparations have also been distracted by his unsuccessful attempts to offload three unwanted stars, and the French coach is frustrated to be heading into the campaign with Gareth Bale, Mariano Diaz and James Rodriguez still at his disposal.
Now, though, the talking stops, the football starts and the big question is whether Zidane’s troops are actually ready to play. Considering the uncertainty over the eventual composition of the squad and a series of poor performances in preseason, it’s fair to say Madrid are looking in less than great shape, and Saturday’s trip to Vigo certainly cannot be taken lightly – especially after Hazard was ruled out with a hamstring injury sustained in training on Friday.
Hazard was set to line up in a central position in support of Karim Benzema, but Zidane will now have to find somebody else for that spot and the most likely candidates are Isco and Vinicius Junior. There could also be a shock inclusion for James or Bale, with at least one of them probable for the bench, so Real Madrid’s fractious summer could well take a few more twists and turns.
Three at the back?
Along with the transfer market soap opera, the most notable aspect of Madrid’s final preseason games was Zidane’s decision to line up with a 3-5-2 formation, a tactical approach he has hardly ever used in the past.
The three-man backline was no more than partially successful, with a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Red Bull Salzburg followed by an unconvincing defensive performance in a 2-2 draw against Roma. So Zidane now has to decide whether to continue the experiment in the serious business of La Liga, which would probably entail a debut for summer signing Eder Militao, or revert to a more accustomed back four with skipper Sergio Ramos partnering Raphael Varane in the heart of defence.
Regardless of the formation chosen, Marcelo is set to start at either left-back or wingback. After being overlooked for much of last season, the experienced Brazilian has been handed a reprieve and returned to starter status with the decision to loan youngster Sergio Reguilon to Sevilla. But he will soon face competition from currently-injured new signing Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo will very much be under the microscope in the opening weeks of the season.
Celta set for improved season?
Celta endured a very poor 2018/19, only just managing to avoid relegation on the final day after a turbulent season which saw them – just like visiting Madrid – led by three different managers.
But with experienced coach Fran Escriba now preparing for a full campaign after doing well to keep the team up following his appointment in March, the Galician club have high hopes they will be a much stronger force this time around.
As ever, much of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of iconic forward Iago Aspas, whose lengthy injury absence coincided precisely with the team’s slump in form last season. The Spain international has a new strike partner with former youth product Santi Mina arriving from Valencia as Maxi Gomez headed in the opposite direction, but Mina will miss this season opener through injury.
Another returnee prompting much expectation among Celta fans is creative midfielder Denis Suarez, who is aiming to kickstart his career following a frustrating couple of seasons with Barcelona. Celta’s biggest weakness last season, however, was at the other end of the field: they conceded 62 goals, the fourth-worst in La Liga, and Escriba’s preseason work was focussed on tightening up at the back. Taking on the attacking might of Madrid, notwithstanding the absence of Hazard and uncertainty over others, will be a stern early test.
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