The Spanish league begins this weekend with Real Madrid determined to assert itself as Spain’s top team after a season in which it fell short of the objectives it had set itself.
A year without trophies at Real Madrid is normally a prelude to big new signings. However, the main change so far for this season has been the replacement of Carlo Ancelotti as coach by Madrid-born Rafa Benitez.
From the outset, the former Real youth defender acknowledged he was happy with the principal components of the squad he inherited from his predecessor.
”I have a great squad with outstanding players,” he said, adding ”I’m delighted with it.”
So, Madrid will start the season at newly-promoted Sporting Gijon with a largely unchanged first-choice squad, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema in attack.
Despite persistent speculation that a new goalkeeper was being sought to replace the departed former captain, Iker Casillas, the area Benitez has reinforced is an already well-stocked midfield.
President Florentino Perez presented Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic to fans at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Wednesday after whirlwind negotiations with Inter Milan that the player said only took ”three or four days.”
Benitez, who could not hide his emotions when he took over as coach at his boyhood club, has spent time carefully honing his team in pre-season games, changing formations and taking copious notes at each match.
Now, the time for experiments has ended.
Casillas made a tearful exit from Madrid after it became clear that Perez was keen to sign David de Gea from Manchester United as first-choice goalkeeper.
But the negotiations with United have been protracted and many observers in Spain now believe Madrid is likely to wait until next season, when De Gea could be acquired without paying a huge fee to the English club.
Currently the ‘keeper’s position is covered by Keylor Navas and Francisco Casilla. Perez faced criticism from media and fans at the seemingly heartless way Casillas was brushed aside after an illustrious career.
Madrid’s reliance on Ronaldo occupying the left flank will not change, although it’s possible that Bale will be moved to the center, behind sole striker Benzema, allowing James Rodriguez to attack up the right. This formation was practiced during Madrid’s off season.
Benitez’s main aim will be to ensure that Ronaldo keeps scoring more than 50 goals a season – a rate he has maintained five years consecutively – and justify the 17 million euros ($18.8 million) salary the Portugal forward earns a year at Madrid.
Perez has made it clear his objective is to win an 11th Champions League crown and depose bitter rival Barcelona from the top of La Liga.
Despite speculation that Perez was scouring the international market for a striker to replace Benzema, Benitez expressed confidence in the French international and instead said he was focused on making the most out of Bale’s largely unfulfilled potential.
”Gareth is a player of huge importance for us,” said Benitez. ”He is going to have a good season, for sure.”
The Wales forward is in his third season at Madrid, having previously played six seasons at Tottenham Hotspurs.
Although Bale has won the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Copa del Rey and the Club World Cup with Madrid, fans are not convinced he represents the club’s post-Ronaldo future as Perez seems to believe.
Although Perez made him the most expensive player ever – at a world-record ?100 million (then $132 million) – Madrid’s fans find it hard to forget his misfires at close range – like against Juventus in the Champions League semifinal second leg – and whistled him off the field on Aug. 18 at a preseason match against Galatasaray.
”Bale knows what he needs to do,” Benitez said. ”We are working on improving the team’s physicality, which will result in him improving when it comes to finding the target.”