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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The new La Liga season begins this weekend, with defending champions Barcelona keen to turn the screw on their recent period of dominance and lift a fifth title in six seasons.
Both Madrid teams will want to prevent that with Real in-particular needing to prove themselves after a woeful 2018/19. Atletico, meanwhile, have had a busy summer and hope they can bridge the gap – they have finished runners-up in the last two years.
Here, PA picks out five players to watch in the Spanish top flight over the coming year.
Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
After a long courtship, Real finally extracted playmaker Hazard from Chelsea in an £88.5million deal over the summer. The high-profile move was a fallback to the galactico recruitment policy of the past, a clear attempt to jolt the side after a frustrating 2018/19 campaign.
Hazard was the standout performer at Stamford Bridge for years, helping deliver plenty of success, and there will be plenty of pressure on him to hit the ground the running.
Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)
Barca are not resting on their laurels after claiming an eighth La Liga crown in 11 years and have had a busy summer in the transfer market, bringing in De Jong, Antoine Griezmann and Junior Firpo.
They also continue to be linked with Neymar. Dutch midfielder De Jong, 22, shone in the Ajax side that reached last year’s Champions League semi-finals and there are high hopes for him at the Camp Nou.
Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
It has been a summer of change for Diego Simeone’s Atletico with a number of comings and goings. The signing of Felix from Benfica for £113million to replace Griezmann has gained the most attention.
The 19-year-old Portugal international, who scored 18 goals in 34 appearances for Benfica last season, comes highly rated and was linked with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool before his move to the Wanda Metropolitano.
Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)
Plenty of people in England – not least Gareth Southgate – will be keen to see how right-back Trippier gets on in La Liga following his £21.7million move from Tottenham.
The 28-year-old former Burnley player has slipped down the England pecking order since the 2018 World Cup after a below par 2018/19 campaign, and the move offers a fresh chance to make an impression on a new stage.
Nabil Fekir (Real Betis)
Betis have bolstered their squad after last season’s mid-table finish with a couple of eye-catching attacking signings in Borja Iglesias and Fekir. France international Fekir, 26, arrived from Lyon for £17.7million having long been linked with a move to one of Europe’s top leagues.
Liverpool, in particular, were long reported to be a potential suitor. The deal could prove a coup for the Andalusian club.
The 19-year-old was roped in for a hefty fee of €126 million to replace Antoine Griezmann. Felix has impressed with his performances in the pre-season friendlies, scoring a brace in Atletico’s 2-1 win over Juventus.
While age is definitely on his side, Mourinho believes the former Benfica forward must take up his responsibilities and not hide behind the fact that he’s still 19. The talent the Portugal international possesses warrants for responsibility according to his compatriot.
“He has a challenge due to the extent of his talent and because of the investment the club have made on him,” Mourinho told the Portuguese Football Federation’s (FPF) television channel, Canal 11.
“I believe that he can’t escape this responsibility. It doesn’t matter if he’s 18, 20 or 25.
“What matters is his talent and the responsibility he has.”