Well here we are. After a preseason with a number of positives to take away but a number of underwhelming and average scorelines, fans and critics are mixed about Real Madrid's chances this season. Some see this as an upgraded and deeper side that brings back the same core which reeled off 22 straight victories last season, while others think that it's basically a dumpster fire ready to happen with zero redeeming qualities (note: this is a really bad opinion).
So what's the real Real Madrid side? Who knows, it's far too early to tell but this weekend could be a good indication of what to expect as Los Blancos face a newly promoted, but eager, Sporting Gijon side.
This isn't a season opener devoid of big questions. New manager Rafa Benitez not only has to worry about learning the ins and outs of his side, but he's got the spotlight firmly planted on a number of players and position battles. The big storyline this offseason has been Gareth Bale and where he'll line up. From all indications, he'll be starting behind the striker but before people start freaking out as if the apocalypse is on the way, they should take into account that the front four has looked extremely fluid in the preseason with virtually all four players rotating spots. Cristiano Ronaldo will hold down his usual spot on the left while Jese will likely deputize for the injured Karim Benzema. Another big question will be who fills in on the right wing, either James Rodriguez or Isco will take it but if both are healthy and fit it'll likely be the former given his output last season.
The midfield will consist of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. New signing Mateo Kovacic will likely still be too green to get any game time, but don't be surprised if he makes the squad with a late cameo in case Madrid is leading comfortably. If the game is tight late, Casemiro will likely make an appearance to hold down the fort. The defense shouldn't provide any surprises either as the only question mark is Pepe and the small knock he's picked up. Danilo could make a surprise start but Daniel Carvajal has had the more solid preseason so it's his spot to lose. Keylor Navas has also looked solid in preseason play and should be the man between the pipes.
One thing to watch out for is the shape with which Real Madrid will play. Many have pegged this side as one which will employ Benitez's favored 4-2-3-1 formation but in reality it has looked fairly versatile so far in the preseason with the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 all making various appearances. A second thing to observe is the front four's pressing as it'll be important for them to limit the opposing defense's passing options with only two midfielders behind them serving as defensive cover.
From Sporting Gijon's perspective, they'll likely look to hunker down and play for a point in front of a loyal and rabid crowd. This is a club with some serious financial problems as they haven't had the funds to strengthen themselves following their second place finish in the Segunda. They'll have their full compliment of players, many of which have several years' experience playing together, plus relatively notable loanee pickups as Barcelona's Croatian wonderkid Alen Halilovic just joined the side for the season (though there is talk that he won't be featuring versus Madrid) and Roma's promising striker Antonio Sanabria also joins on loan.
Sporting will likely be focused on defending first, but they do have a few interesting players to watch out for. Left midfielder Jony chipped in seven goals and 10 assists last season while Carlos Castro and Miguel Angel Guerrero combined for 20 goals last season. That being said, the competition they faced last season was far inferior to what they'll face this weekend and scoring opportunities could prove to be too far and in between. They'll likely look to hit back on the counter and set pieces, two weaknesses of Real Madrid over the last few years, so it'll be interesting to not how Rafa's men have improved in this aspect, if at all.
Sporting Gijon probable lineup: TBD
Real Madrid probable lineup: Navas; Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Carvajal; Kroos, Modric; Ronaldo, Bale, Rodriguez; Jese
Prediction: 2-0 in favor of Real Madrid. On paper this should be a cakewalk for the visitors but early season rust and a motivated home side should provide a fairly stern opening day challenge for Rafa Benitez's men.