Real Madrid romped to an emphatic, Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired, 6-0 thrashing of Espanyol on Saturday afternoon and they did it with coach Rafa Benitez showcasing the first prime example of the rotation policy he will implement in the squad under his command.
Toni Kroos and Raphael Varane, both of whom started the opening two matches of the campaign, dropped to the bench with Casemiro and Pepe, respectively, taking their places. The fact that both Danilo and James Rodriguez returned from international duty with injuries did not change Benitez's thinking.
The biggest surprise may have been Casemiro coming in for Kroos, a player who hardly got a rest last season and who mentioned his tired legs in front of the press. That Pepe also came in at the expense of Varane courted further discussion over who Benitez's preferred centre-back pairing will be in the big games.
The defence has been an interesting topic ever since the Madrid-born coach took control in the summer. Benitez has been labelled by some, perhaps undeservedly, as a defensive coach but the news that Sergio Ramos was seemingly unsettled and linked with a move to Manchester United and the fact that Pepe had just a year left to run on his contract left a back-four that also welcomed the arrival of Danilo up in the air.
Ramos, with a new deal under his belt and with the captain's armband, has his place secured but the early signs this season are that Benitez will place his full trust in Varane for the big matches and Pepe, despite recently penning a contract extension, will act as back-up.
The Frenchman started the opening two matches of the season and helped Madrid keep clean sheets in both games. That he took a place on the bench for Saturday's match at the Power8 Stadium should only mean Benitez is keeping his young star fresh for a jam-packed fixture list in the coming weeks, with a tough trip to the Vicente Calderon at the end of it.
It comes in contrast to Varane's role under Carlo Ancelotti last season. For the most part of the Italian's two-year reign in charge, Pepe was the go-to man for the big matches and Varane would be the man to come in and plug the gap when needed. Even big performances in those outings did not see him win an obvious starting role in the heart of the Madrid defence. Indeed, although he made plenty of appearances last season much of those outings came with one of Pepe or Ramos sidelined through injury.
After plenty of false starts it now seems like Varane is ready to be the preferred starter alongside his more experienced Spanish centre-back partner. His role in the starting eleven for the opening two matches of the season points towards that and Pepe's first start of the season in Catalonia is only part of Benitez's well-oiled rotation machine.
Madrid's trip to Barcelona provided the first of seven matches in a 22-day period before the next international break in October. It may still be early in the season but Benitez knows the importance of rotation to keep legs fresh. Luis Enrique came under some criticism early last season for doing the same but eventually it paid off. With every trophy a necessity for a club such as Madrid, it is a wise move.
Los Blancos host Shakhtar Donetsk in their opening Champions League group match on Tuesday night before welcoming Granada at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday. A traditionally tough trip to Bilbao awaits the following midweek before Benitez's men face Malaga at home, travel to Sweden to face Malmo and finish things off with the short trip to face Atleti before the break for international matches.
With respect to Espanyol, the trip to the Power8 Stadium should be one of the more ‘comfortable' matches in that stretch - and so it proved. Expect Benitez to rotate again for the visit of Granada next week ahead of the tmore daunting rip to San Mames. The clash with Athletic and Diego Simeone's side will not only be the toughest two in that seven-game run but two of the toughest tests of the season in any competition.
Pepe has been used to the competition - and competition is good - but now he has to get used to the fact he will likely to playing second fiddle to the former Lens man. That the Portuguese defender only recently penned a new contract extension to stay at the club suggests that although he will not be happy at dropping down the pecking order, he is at least content to stay at the club, get his chances and fight for his place.
The former Porto man showed a more mature side to his game last season under Ancelotti. Bookings were few and far between and for the most part he put a lid on the kamikaze defending that had left question marks over whether he should be a regular starter before. That mature side looks to have been maintained this season and his presence in and around the squad should only be good for the rest of the players.
"I'm happy for him, he deserves it," Pepe said in the summer of 2014 after Varane played in the Champions League final success. "He has worked hard, he is a player who has a bright future ahead of him. Real Madrid will help with that." Young players need the support of their peers and although Varane was breathing down Pepe's neck for a starting role, he got just that from the Portugal international.
The early signs this season are that Varane is the centre-back partner of choice for Ramos this season but Pepe will still play a crucial role given Benitez's rotation policy. For some, the timing is right and for others, it should have come sooner. For the majority, they are waiting for the Frenchman to cement his status as one of the best centre-backs in the world.