The first preseason match almost always brings about a feeling of excitement and nerves. Even if a favored side isn't expected to have a glittering season, the return to football is enough for most fans to turn their undivided attention to the proceedings. Though it's often easy to become tempted into drawing numerous conclusions from what is essentially a glorified scrimmage, it doesn't hurt to pay attention to certain aspects of the team.
Here's what we're keeping an eye on.
1. The rightback performances
A great deal of discussion has been had about Real Madrid splashing €31.5 million for a rightback in a position where the club already has one of the best in the world. However, Danilo's physical features and gameplay is that of which would suit Real Madrid to a tee and would therefore put the pressure on Dani Carvajal to step up and perform. It should be interesting to note who gets the head start and how the team plays with Danilo versus Carvajal. Expect the former to have more of a license to go forward and join the attack and perhaps even drifting centrally to occupy a more midfield role on occasion. If Danilo plays at the same time as Lucas Vazquez, it could provide an interesting dynamic because the two could potentially switch positions given Danilo's excellent attacking flair and Vazquez's superb effort on defense.
2. Casemiro and Asier Illarramendi
As the only two midfielders on the roster with a natural defensive instinct, both could be seeing this preseason as an audition to serve as the preferred holding option and potentially pushing for a starting spot should the duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos not be defensive enough for Rafa Benitez. Photographs have shown Benitez including Illarramendi in his talks with the centerbacks so one could assume that Illarra is higher on Benitez's pecking list for the deep midfielder set to drop in in-between the central defenders. Neither is a hard-nosed disciplined defensive midfielder, Casemiro is ready to put a tackle in but his defensive positioning and concentration is notably suspect while Illarramendi has the smarts to play the role but isn't exactly the most physically imposing midfielder in the world. This tour could go a long way in helping mask those deficiencies and gaining favor in Benitez's eyes. If neither impress, talks of the club shopping for a bigger name defensive midfielder could intensify as pundits and the public have been hounding Florentino Perez for not replacing Xabi Alonso's defensive nous last summer.
Much has been made of the offensive 4-3-3 employed by Carlo Ancelotti during his two year reign at Madrid and if Benitez will tinker with it. The Spaniard is a proponent of the 4-2-3-1 with discussion centering around defensive stability. Benitez is someone how has built a reputation for being defensive-minded in some circles, but deeper analysis and Napoli's goals account total in the 2014-2015 season tells us otherwise. There would be many times in the last two or three seasons where the team acted as three separate defensive unis with only some players pulling their weight, the fault falling namely on the wide attackers and Marcelo. It's still likely too early for the team to totally click and act as one cohesive unit, but one would like to see a somewhat clear idea of what shape they'll play in and if the defense improves because of it.
4. Who plays the striker role
Among the discussions centered around Benitez's setup is the role of the striker and if this is the time to transition Cristiano Ronaldo into more of a poacher spearheading the attack. The problem with this idea is that one, Karim Benzema could potentially be benched or asked to play as a facilitator behind the striker, and two, despite Ronaldo's tendencies to drift into the box he still has virtually no experience as the out-and-out striker with Real Madrid. He's served his national team in this capacity at times, but drifting into the striker's area and playing as the outright striker are two different things. Of course, Benitez could instruct his players to form a two-striker look, but history doesn't point to this idea. If Benzema plays his customary role and drops deeper, a 4-2-3-1 could see a midfielder in the hole behind the striker's area and could thus lead to some growing pains with Benzema lurking in the same territory.
5. Keylor Navas' performance
The long-lasting Iker Casillas reign in Real Madrid is over, leaving the door wide open for Keylor Navas to stake his claim as the starting keeper in a summer where rumors swirl of a David De Gea transfer to Madrid. Navas suffered an injury the last time he took part in national team duty, but he appears to have healed quickly and should be ready for this weekend. Some questions have been asked about his aerial prowess and Roma isn't an air-dominant side by any means, but it should still be interesting to note how he fares with the pressure of tending the net for such a massive club. Pacheco is expected to deputize behind him and could see some minutes but his playing time might just be a formality at this point.
These points only scratch the surface of what should be a fascinating preseason tour for Real Madrid in a time where the team is going through a pretty significant transition. Other things to watch out for are Luka Modric's health and fitness, Jese and Vazquez's impact and Gareth Bale's involvement and efficiency in the new offense. All these question marks should serve to pique fans' interest in the preseason matches more than the usual fervor over football's return.