“It has been a great eight years playing for Real Madrid”, said a cryptic Cristiano Ronaldo on the night Real Madrid won their third straight Champions League in Kyiv. The entire Madrid fanbase across the globe went into frenzy, already speculating the departure of the mercurial Portuguese. While some thought this was just a ploy of Ronaldo to get a better contract off of Florentino Perez and Real. But that wasn’t the case. Ronaldo didn’t renew. In what will always be amongst the biggest transfer deals ever, Ronaldo moved to Italian outfit Juventus for 100 million euros. The world was in shock. Real and its fans were worried about their future.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Zinedine Zidane (the architect behind Real’s hat-trick of Champions Leagues), stepped down just after the Champions League final. Real were in a state of transition. After Zidane, they lost the spearhead who guided them to three trophy laden years since 2016. But as iconic British band Queen said, “The show must go on”. And it did. Real brought in Julen Lopetegui, who was sacked by Spain for secretly contacting Real just before the World Cup. The Spaniard, with Real Madrid roots, was welcomed with open arms.
In literal meaning, Real had brought in Zidane’s replacement. Whether metaphorically, that were the case, that’d be determined after Lopetegui finishes at least two or three seasons with ‘Los Blancos’. But Ronaldo? Real didn’t sign any direct replacements of him. Usually during the transfer windows back in the days, Real Madrid almost always signed one or more big money signings. That trend had stopped since Zidane came in as he provided the squad with much needed stability. And the results are there to be seen. Real did sign Mariano Diaz back from Lyon and they did hand him the #7 shirt, but he is no heir or replacement to Ronaldo. So, how exactly are the Whites faring without their ex-main man?
In one line, the answer has to be so far so good. Real was great in their pre-season. Despite the loss against Manchester United, they won against Juventus and AS Roma. The gameplay of Lopetegui’s Madrid caught the eye of many viewers. Sleek passing, intense pressing is something the Spaniard always took pride in. This was somewhat his signature tactics and Real are playing by those perfectly. Karim Benzema seems like a player reborn. Gareth Bale, who, many thought would find even more difficult at the Bernabeu under Lopetegui as he isn’t big on the wing playing tactics, is also flourishing as Real’s attack is built with him as the centre or the nucleus. Marco Asensio makes up the front three for a trio full of experience, youth. They may lack fire power, but they have more than made up for it with their united goal scoring abilities in the matches so far this season.
Just like his friendly debut for Real started off in a losing note, Lopetegui’s first competitive match for Real ended in defeat too. Against Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Supercup, they lost 4-2 despite leading 2-1 with just 30 minutes to go. The defence looked extremely shaky. But ever since the start of La Liga, Real have left behind all those blues. And most importantly, they’ve brushed aside the fear many had for Real. And that is they won’t be their free scoring self without the talismanic Ronaldo. But Lopetegui’s men have proved the doubters wrong. In three La Liga games, Real have won all three, scoring ten and conceding just two goals in the process.
Let’s keep aside the statistical stuffs. On the basis of their on field performance, Real look like a compact and united side. With Casemiro standing in front of the back line as a destroyer who intercepts oppositions’ attacks and starts counters with his ever elegant distributions, Lopetegui has managed to bring the best out of the Brazilian. Beside him, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric need no explaining. Regardless of who the coach is, they always seem to be their true top notch self and that is exactly what’s been happeining. In defence, the area Real looked like having a real problem; has also been reassured with Captain Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane coming back to form. Fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Carvajal still prove why they are, in many people’s eyes, the best full back duo in Europe. Despite signing World Cup golden glove winner Thibaut Courtois, Lopetegui seems to keep trust in Keylor Navas just like his predecessor, Zinedine Zidane. Courtois played in the League against Leganes, but Navas has started three of the four games this season. So, it’ll be interesting to see how Lopetegui handles the goalkeeping conundrum.
In attack, Bale-Benzema-Asensio looks to be the go to plan for the Spanish coach. And they’ve repaid their coach’s trust. Bale, Benzema are in the top five of La Liga’s top goalscorers. Asensio has earned as many as three penalties for Real this season. He’s also been scoring. The best part of Lopetegui is that the entire squad seems to feel wanted under his guidance. Players like Isco, Dani Ceballos (who played relatively lesser for Zidane given their abilities), have already been used for good amount of time. This faith showed in them by the gaffer has been healthy for both, as they also have started off the season on a harmonious note.
It’s still early days to predict what kind of season Real will have. But one thing’s for sure, Lopetegui has a plan to make up for the goals they’ll be missing since Ronaldo is not donning the iconic #7 of Real Madrid anymore. Whether he’ll succeed or not, that’s a totally different debate. And something that can only be determined once the season ends.