La Liga preview: Real Madrid look promising with a settled squad, last season's success likely on menu

How do you improve a season that was the last campaign?

What a season it turned out to be for Real Madrid last time around. They became first ever team to retain the UEFA Champions League (Milan, Ajax, Juventus, Valencia, Manchester United and Bayern Munich had come close with two successive finals) after Arrigo Sacchi’s immortal AC Milan side did it nearly three decades ago in the European Cup era.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Reuters

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Reuters

They bested the multiple Scudetto-winning, treble-chasing Juventus team 4-1 in a lopsided final in Cardiff. Well-oiled sides such as Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid were felled by the wayside in the earlier knockout rounds. The calm exuded by the Real Madrid midfield after falling 0-2 down against Atletico Madrid after 16 minutes (protecting a 3-0 first leg lead) was the stuff of legend.

Whatever their opponents threw at them that season, Real Madrid seemed to find an answer to every question posed.

After all, it isn’t every day that a team has scored in each competitive fixture of the season. Every outfield squad member (barring the often injured Fabio Coentrao) got on the scoresheet. Even for a team of Real’s firepower, it is a tad unusual. While it is true that Real Madrid have often sacrificed the La Liga in pursuit of continental glory, last season they won the domestic and continental double for the first time since 1957-58.

There it was, history in black and white, and in more ways than one. Three Champions Leagues in four years is a record that even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona couldn’t achieve. If this isn’t the makings of a dynasty, it would be tough to define one. Or have they reached the end of a cycle?

Looking at the squad composition, it seems unlikely. For one, the only outfield players over the age of 30 were Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos. This isn’t a squad that needed an overhaul; a few touches here and there would keep it going. Veteran centre-back Pepe has been replaced with a younger player in 20-year-old Jesus Vallejo. Sergio Ramos has a year or two of mileage left at the topmost level and if Ronaldo’s fitness management is as good as last year, he won’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

Last year, the team did struggle with fluidity during Modric’s absences, but the swift signing of Spanish U21 starlet of Dani Cebellos (who was the player of the tournament in the UEFA U21 European Championships of 2017), and the presence of fellow midfield schemer Isco and able deputy of Mateo Kovacic should soothe the anxiety surrounding the well-being of the diminutive, indefatigable Croatian maestro.

The team also suffered (relatively) from the absences of two key players who had no real replacements last season: the defensive midfielder Casemiro, and the left back Marcelo. While second choice left back Fabio Coentrao was present in theory, Danilo and Nacho were often preferred ahead of him when Marcelo was ruled out for selection. On the other hand, last year’s squad did not have a natural replacement for Casemiro, who had a splendid season. Yes, Toni Kroos, Mateo Kovacic and Modric can hustle, but truth be told, they are no match for Casemiro’s heavy artillery.

Hence, the recall of Real youth teamer Marcos Llorente was a no-brainer given his performances on loan at Alaves last season, where he averaged 3.8 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game. Given his added bite in midfield, Real Madrid can feel confident that they have cover in this position. Similarly, the acquisition of his Alaves teammate Theo Hernandez is a natural fit as well. He is young, swift, and blessed with an able left foot. Marcelo can perhaps finally hope for a few matches off during the lengthy season.

Where might troubles crop up in this campaign?

Real Madrid are hoping to do better and have ambitiously aimed for six trophies during the season. This implies being in peak shape for more than 60 matches. No doubt, Zinedine Zidane did an admirable job by rotating and keeping his squad fresh and motivated for most of the season, but there was also an undeniable fallout.

Last season’s Real Madrid was probably one of the most deep squads in recent memory. To give an indication of the riches available on Zidane’s bench, Spanish hitman Alvaro Morata and Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez (Isco worked himself back into the side with Gareth Bale’s lengthy layoff) were ever present when the moment presented itself. These two players of obvious quality contributed 31 of the 173 competitive goals scored by Real Madrid last season. One of the reasons why Real could rest Ronaldo, or didn’t feel the absence of Bale’s scoring was because Rodriguez and Morata more than ably chipped in with key goals throughout the campaign. Understandably, they have moved on to greener pastures seeking more playing time at Chelsea (Morata) and Bayern Munich (James), but Real will miss their cutting edge from the bench.

Real Madrid's players joke with Cristiano Ronaldo as they celebrate their Supercup victory against FC Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. AFP

Real Madrid's players joke with Cristiano Ronaldo as they celebrate their Supercup victory against FC Barcelona. AFP

Last season, Zidane could comfortably play his 'second string' squad in the knowledge that their quality on auto-pilot was good enough to get a result against a mid-table team. But this lack of equivalent firepower this time around might hurt them in their quest for glory this season. Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are the regular forwards with the young Borja Mayoral hoping to get a cup game or two, but a scoring slump or an injury should make things really interesting. Now with Ronaldo’s five game suspension, it remains to be seen if Real will be slow off the starting blocks and puts undue pressure on whatever’s left of the striking unit.

In any case, getting a star striker to play second fiddle to either Benzema or Ronaldo is all but ruled out, and it is hard to find alternatives to Morata’s quality with less than half a month left in the transfer window. Real Madrid will have to hope for their squad to come through like they did last season or this has to be Bale’s breakout year.

In comparision, the departures of Rodriguez and Danilo are much easier to digest compared to Morata’s given the squad composition. Los Merengues have plenty of midfielders of the attacking variety, and Nacho can fill ably in at right back. But given Dani Carvajal’s streak with injury and yellow cards, it would make sense for Real to sign a full-time deputy rather than rely on Nacho and Achraf Hakimi.

With a mostly settled squad, Real Madrid should aim for defending their league title and the Club World Cup. With a Neymar-shaped headache out of the Camp Nou, a Morata-less Real should have enough in the tank to win the league. The cup competitions involve getting the luck of the draw at some stage hence a semifinal appearance should be the bare minimum expectation. Squad-wise, identification of world-class successors to Ronaldo, Benzema and Ramos would be a nice bonus.

No doubt, this season will be a vastly different test for Zinedine Zidane and his men.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2017 15:38 PM

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