Real Madrid heads into the new season with more questions than answers
Real Madrid heads into the new season with more questions than answers. Zinedine Zidane’s second coming at Real Madrid proved the Frenchman is no miracle worker.
When he returned to the club for a second spell as coach, he was supposed to provide solutions to a crisis-ridden season.
By the time Zidane had been reappointed in March, two other managers — Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari — had been and gone in the blink of an eye.
Fast forward to the end of the season and Real Madrid had lost 17 games in all competitions and finished 19 points behind La Liga champion Barcelona, making it the worst Los Blancos side of the 21st Century.
Real lost four of Zidane’s 11 games in charge but his trophy-laden first spell earned him the benefit of the doubt with the club’s board.
However, as La Liga kicks off on Friday — Athletic Club play Barcelona — doubts still linger over Zidane’s man management skills, his tactical nous and whether or not the success of his first spell was down to 11 players’ individual brilliance — notably Cristiano Ronaldo’s relentless goalscoring feats.
“I think the main success of Zidane in the previous years was Cristiano Ronaldo and he’s not at Madrid anymore,” Catalunya Radio journalist Ernest Macia told CNN Sport.
“So now we’ll see the true Zidane. The people here in Madrid said: ‘The Real Madrid of Zinedine Zidane, it was the Real Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo.’ Now we will see how difficult it is to manage, to master a dressing room like Real Madrid — especially when results are not good.
“He has a lot of credit because he won three Champions Leagues, however it will depend not only on the results but on how Real Madrid plays. Unlike Barcelona, which is a club with a philosophy and DNA, Real is a club that invests money to win titles.”
It’s been widely reported that the Frenchman will now keep both Bale and James Rodriguez in the squad against his own wishes, as Real failed to land his No. 1 midfielder target Paul Pogba.
Real President Florentino Perez is said to be a fan of the Welshman — coming to his defense on a number of occasions during his time at the club — and James, and has reportedly clashed with Zidane over their future roles.
“Zinedine Zidane wanted Pogba at any price,” Macia said. “When he was asked: ‘Okay, if Pogba is not possible, another player?’ He said: ‘Pogba.’
“Of course it’s a big disappointment if Pogba stays [at Manchester United], he will have to find solutions somewhere else. He’s been offered three of four different options and he’s not happy with Bale, who is a player who makes a difference but he gets injured very often.”
Several new summer signings will also need time to gel and Zidane has continued to show preference to what he views as his trusted old guard.
Karim Benzema looks set to start the season up front ahead of new €60 million ($66.5M) striker Luka Jovic, while doubts remain as to the role summer marquee signing Eden Hazard will play.
To make matters worse, Real announced Friday that the Belgian star has suffered a hamstring injury and will miss Saturday’s season opener against Celta Vigo.
Stalwart Marcelo will likely be preferred at left back to exciting young signing Ferland Mendy, as will Raphael Varane in place of €50 million ($55M) signing Eder Militao to partner captain Sergio Ramos in the heart of defense.
“I don’t see them winning many more titles,” Macia said. “In Europe they have big competitors, in La Liga they have Barcelona which is very well settled. It will come down to how Real Madrid grows this project.
“With new players, especially the signing of Hazard, and how they make the transition from the older ones — like Modric in midfield — and the newcomers. I think that Real has the players to do it but I’m not sure that Zidane is the man.
“I think it will be very difficult for him and his new time there will be more difficult than the previous four years.”
Champions League ‘obsession’
With Atletico Madrid undergoing the biggest squad overhaul — albeit an exciting one — in Diego Simeone’s eight-year reign, Barcelona’s settled side is the overwhelming favorite to retain its La Liga title.
The €120 million ($132M) signing of Antoine Griezmann from direct rival Atleti and the arrival of precocious talent Frenkie de Jong from Ajax has bolstered an already world class squad.
However, Barcelona’s focus this season will undoubtedly be on the Champions League, a competition it hasn’t won since 2015 and has crashed out of in spectacular fashion the past two seasons.
After surrendering 4-1 and 3-0 aggregate leads against Roma and Liverpool, respectively, there is an increasing concern among fans that the club is throwing away opportunities for arguably the greatest player ever: Lionel Messi.
“After what has happened in the last two seasons, the Champions League is now the priority — I would say it’s an obsession,” Macia said. “In Barcelona we know we have potentially the best player of all time and that we are wasting our time committing absurd mistakes.
“In Barcelona we think that the Champions League is a must for this team. Not only because of Messi but because Barcelona has an incredible team.
“They’ve invested a lot of money in Griezmann and De Jong and potentially Barcelona has the best squad in Europe, along with Manchester City.”
Barcelona’s pre-season has been promising, losing just once and showing signs that the new players are integrating well into the plans of Ernesto Valverde, who himself is under pressure this season after also losing the Copa del Rey final.
But that tricky opening fixture in Bilbao Friday will provide an early insight into the season that might lie ahead for the Blaugrana.