Coach: Zinedine Zidane
Key signings: Alvaro Morata
Key sales: Alvaro Arbeloa, Jese, Denis Cheryshev
Last season: Second
This season (predicted finish): Third
It’s been quiet at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer, but perhaps not too quiet. There’s a distinct lack of headline-grabbing arrivals in Real Madrid’s squad for 2016-17, but that might be what Los Blancos need to convert last year’s Champions League success into a return to domestic dominance.
Alvaro Morata is the main difference to the squad Zinedine Zidane inherited from Rafa Benitez in January to the one with which he will start the season, the Spain international returning after two years at Juventus and Madrid resisting the urge to sell him on at a profit. Paul Pogba was linked and so was Andre Gomes, but they’re now at Manchester United and Barcelona respectively.
Zizou has suggested he has enough midfielders as it is and he might be right, with his squad well-stocked elsewhere as well. Keylor Navas is entrenched in goal – though not fit for the start of the season – and Dani Carvajal deserves to be first-choice right-back ahead of Danilo. Marcelo is set on the left and has Fabio Coentrao to cover him, with the only question among the back four being who partners Sergio Ramos – Pepe or Raphael Varane? Nacho provides cover in all areas too.
Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric provide a balanced midfield three and Mateo Kovacic offers back-up, at least for now. Question marks remain over the futures of James Rodriguez and Isco as even when Zidane insists they’re staying at Santiago Bernabeu, his remarks are couched in a ‘we’ll see what happens by the end of August’ caveat.
Cristiano Ronaldo, having been ordered to take a real break to rehab an injury following a successful Euro 2016 with Portugal, should return fresh and ready to fire, and Gareth Bale’s stock rose even higher after his exploits with Wales. Karim Benzema had a summer break after being dropped by France and his club should feel the benefit, though it remains to be seen how Zidane will get the ‘BBC’ gelling with the returning Morata, not to mention the likes of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez.
And now, with a full season of Zidane and after two Champions League successes in three years, surely Madrid’s attention must be on matters more domestic. Not since 2011-12 and the dark arts of Jose Mourinho has La Liga been housed at the Bernabeu, an epoch that threatens to stretch as long as the wait between the ninth and 10th European Cups. Madrid have 32 Primera titles, a record and still some way ahead of Barcelona, but the gap is closing.
The points gap by the time the season finished in May was down to one when at one stage the Catalans threatened to run away with the title by a double-digit margin – and Madrid were nearly again squeezed out of the top two by Atletico Madrid. Perhaps though the end to the previous campaign is a sign Zizou is the man to return Madrid to the Spanish summit, having conquered the continent after only a few months at the helm.