Real lost two of their opening five games last season and never closed the gap on Barcelona. With a defeat to Atletico Madrid in Wednesday's Uefa Super Cup hanging over them, new manager Lopetegui knows only results will quash talk of 'confusion'
Real Madrid need to come racing out of the blocks as they face up to life without Ronaldo
"Do we sign a player?" asked the front cover of Friday’s Marca after Wednesday’s 4-2 Uefa Super Cup defeat for Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid in Estonia. The two Madrid clubs have won 60 per cent of all European trophies in the past five years - Real Madrid have won four of the past five Uefa Champions League titles - but there’s a nervousness since the departure of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer.
Smelling blood, the Catalan press splashed with the "confusion" at the Bernabeu, yet it was the first international final which Madrid had lost since 2000 – 13 matches in total – and they didn’t play badly. Real seldom do defeat in any of the finals that matter, though Atletico did get the better of them in the 2013 Copa del Rey final too.
So far it has been a relatively quiet summer for Real, although there is time for new arrivals before the Spanish transfer window closes in two weeks. Having broken even on deals this summer, they also have money – €300 million (over Dh1.2 billion) according to several Spanish sources – to spend, but it’s not like a team who have proven they are the best in the world haven’t signed players.
With his Chelsea contract running down into its final year, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois came back to the city where he was a hero with Atletico for a bargain €35 million, while midfielder Mateo Kovacic has gone the other way on loan.
Alvaro Odriozola, the 22-year-old right-back who so impressed with Real Sociedad last season and was called up to Spain’s World Cup squad under Julen Lopetegui – now his manager at club level – arrived in a €30 million deal. Odriozola will hope to do better than Asier Illarramendi, the last similarly priced youngster to make the move from San Sebastian to the Bernabeu.
Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior is the most exciting acquisition. The 18 year old arrives in a €45 million deal from Flamengo. He delighted a 64,000 crowd with his trickery when Madrid played Manchester United in their first pre-season game in Miami.
Ronaldo aside, Madrid have kept all their big guns. Those serial winners from captain Sergio Ramos to Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos to Isco all remain for the new season. Gareth Bale will be expected to become more of a star man in Ronaldo’s absence. As the Welshman showed in the Uefa Champions League final, which he was frustrated to start on the bench, he has the talent to produce something spectacular in the biggest matches. Bale needs to stay injury free, but while he hasn’t really learnt Spanish, he is genuinely happy at Madrid - when he’s playing.
Madrid have a tough first two months, with games at Girona, who defeated them last season, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Alaves and Barcelona. They also host Atletico Madrid, who have a ruthless confidence about them, on September 29.
Madrid and Spain will miss Ronaldo, the question is: how much? The Portuguese has been Madrid’s best player season after season, their top scorer with 450 goals in nine incredible seasons. Madrid made a profit on him and won’t miss his annual agitating for a new contract, but they will be heavily criticised if they slip from the heights Ronaldo helped them reach.
Madrid suffered a terrible start last season, winning two of their opening five league games. The title race wasn’t over by the time they lost to Real Betis in September, but they were already seven points behind Barcelona after five games, a gap which only increased.
Getafe, Madrid’s first opponents who travel across the capital to visit the Bernabeu where they narrowly lost 2-1 last season, are a genuine test. They fared better than any of the promoted teams last season, finishing eighth, and were superbly organised as they held champions Barcelona 0-0 away in February.
New manager Lopetegui, who wants his team to play a high pressing attacking game, doesn’t control which players arrive, but there is external pressure for his side to be bolstered by a forward, even if only as a back-up, as Javier Hernandez was in 2014/15. That pressure would quickly melt if his team start the season as well as Barcelona did last term, but the managerial fuse is a short one at Madrid.