Last year, when Real Madrid were all set to start their season campaign, the question on everybody’s lips was: ‘Can they make it past the Round of 16?’ For a club with unparalleled history, it was the wrong question to ask. Los Galacticos also had welcomed their customary new manager, Jose Mourinho, after the sacking of Manuel Pellegrini. It was a move that was criticized as well as appreciated in equal measure. Fans were not sure if Mourinho could match their ambitions of ‘delightful’ football.
But, this one year has turned out to be one of the best in recent memory.
Yes, Real Madrid have not won a Champions League or the League title, but only the Copa Del Rey. But, the way the club has progressed, raised hopes and belief about its future is commendable. This renewed optimism among the players, fans and management can be attributed to three factors – quality, young signings at reasonable prices, the manner of the Copa victory and obviously Jose Mourinho. This optimism and confidence has made fans believe that this team can actually challenge the might of Barcelona and beat them to the big prize this year.
It’s going to be an exciting season for Madrid. Finally, the club has found some stability, with the coach being given respectable authority after the sacking of Jorge Valdano and with the skeleton of the team remaining unchanged from last year. The starting XI may remain remain unchanged but the bench strength has been further strengthened, giving Mourinho a back-up in every position of the pitch. The Spanish giants will be hoping to win every major competition, and such a strong bench will allow the Portuguese tactician to rotate his squad and keep his players fresh for important clashes.
Jose Mourinho is expected to stick to his standard 4-2-3-1 system against majority of the teams, but he will shift to a 4-3-3 against Barcelona, considering how fruitful it proved in the Copa Del Rey final. This Real Madrid team thrives on the vision on Alonso; with him being the only creative outlet, it was easy for Barcelona to shut him down, and nullify his ability. With Lass and Khedira as ball-winning players and Lass incapable of creating anything, the onus of creativity was solely on Alonso. But with Nuri Sahin, Real Madrid will have an extra outlet for creativity in the midfield that will reduce the pressure on Alonso and give him some breathing space. Sahin’s signing could actually turn out to be the biggest difference in the squad of previous year and of this year.
On a brighter note, Real Madrid would have all its goal keepers who have graduated from its academy. Iker Casillas would be the undisputed choice for #1 with Antonio Adan as the secondary keeper. A more detailed take on the transfers at the club can be read here.
The Whites have toured USA, England, Germany and China and have won all their matches without any major hitches and the players have also gained precious match minutes before the crucial Super Copa clash. Cristiano Ronaldo, as usual, has been ruthless in front of the goal, but the biggest talking point has been the form of Karim Benzema. After being criticized by Mourinho and fans for his indifferent and unprofessional attitude on the pitch at times, Benzema has responded brilliantly with eight goals in seven pre-season games. He has maintained his form from the previous season and has effectively displaced Gonzalo Higuain as the primary striker, thereby earning the adulation of the fans.
The other talking point has been the role of Fabio Coentrao in this set-up. He is quick with good intensity and his ball control is pretty decent. His ball-winning skills have been handy when he has played in the central midfield or as a box-box defender, which allows Mourinho to utilize him more effectively, rather than just being a back-up for the Brazilian Marcelo. One major disappointment has been the injury to Nuri Sahin, depriving the fans an opportunity to find out his exact role in this set-up.
Casa Blanca kick off their season campaign with the not so important but extremely crucial Super Copa against eternal rivals Barcelona. The cup might hold no great significance, but a victory in this two-legged tie will increase the confidence among the players and give them something definitive to cheer and celebrate before the start of the league.
Then the league kicks off with Real Madrid hosting Athletic Bilbao at home and they have to win this game. FC Barcelona will be facing Malaga, who can prove to be a banana skin for the Catalan outfit, and Real Madrid need to make the most of such opportunities because they would be rare over the course of the season. Then they host Galatasaray for the Trofeo Bernabéu after which they travel to Zaragoza.
The most crucial period of the fixtures would be between November 20th and Chrismas break when Madrid would face Valencia, Atletico, Sporting Gijon and FC Barcelona and Sevilla, before going into the Christmas break and then the same opponents from 7h April to 22nd April. These matches could possibly decide the outcome of the league and Los Blancos cannot afford to lose in these crucial matches. And when you throw in Copa and CL matches into the mix, the schedule would become heavy and taxing, but it would be the same for every team.
Real Madrid had the advantage of not losing at home except for a few minor blips previous season and if they want to win the league and the Champions League, they should avoid those minor blips ad not lose/draw any match at home, especially to Barcelona. FC Barcelona are a great team and any draw or loss could actually widen the gap between the two great clubs, as Barca very rarely drop points.
When you talk of expectations at Real Madrid, they will always remain the same every year. Real Madrid have this unwritten rule of being the best club in the world and anything below the best is unacceptable at the club. It’s been nine years since Zidane scored that magical volley to gift Madrid its ninth European title and since then they have been chasing La Decima. This chase has made people take crazy decisions and implement stupid ideologies but finally, that era of stupidity looks done and dusted with.
In this quest for La Decima, Real Madrid has seen the emergence of its bitter rivals – Barcelona, not once but twice. First with Ronaldinho as the chief architect and then under Pep Guardiola, FC Barcelona has achieved so much that they threaten to walk away with the title of best club team in history. It is also a major challenge for the coach, Jose Mourinho to prove that he is the best tactician in the world and he could not have asked for a better opposition than Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. If Mourinho wins the La Liga and CL this season, it would mean that he has won the domestic league in four countries, and the Champions League with three different clubs – an astounding achievement that would certainly mean immortality for him in the history of football. And it would mean that, Real Madrid would become the first club to reach a double digit mark in winning the Champions League. It would be much more special, as they would have done it in the era of this great Barcelona side.
The Catalans are already up to the challenge, having further strengthened their squad with the signing of the Chilean Alexis Sanchez and with the imminent arrival of Barcelona’s lost son, Cesc Fabregas. It’s undoubtedly going to be a tough year for Real Madrid as they face the challenge of winning the Champions League as well as fighting the unstoppable Catalans in their quest to be called the Spanish champions again.
The belief is high. The optimism is visible. The swagger is back. Glory awaits the most successful club in football history.