The new era for Real Madrid starts properly on Sunday. It’s also the beginning of a new era for Julen Lopetegui in his new role as head coach of the European Champions.
Although Julen has been in his post for several weeks now and overseen a disrupted pre-season campaign due to the World Cup, this is where it all gets going properly.
You can play all the friendly games you want but until it’s time for La Liga to come around everything beforehand is preparatory.
That statement won’t go down well across the city, but it’s a fact. It’s the league that matters; or the Champions League dependent on how you view it. Either way, it’s the real stuff that counts and that starts on Sunday with the visit of Getafe.
There’s an awful lot of water gone under the bridge since Zinedene Zidane called it a day. Whether temporary or otherwise we don’t know for sure but it did signify the end of an era at the Bernabéu.
And as Gabe mentioned recently in his article on the march of time, football is defined by eras.
Zidane’s era ended with the Champions League victory in Kiev; and I know I wasn’t the only one who reacted to the post-match comments by both Gareth Bale and Cristiano with a sense that changes were in the offing.
There didn’t seem to be any way that things could continue as they were from that moment onwards.
Julen Lopetegui has acknowledged Zidane’s contribution as an extraordinary achievement; but now has to focus on what he himself can achieve at the helm.
Like Zidane before him, he’ll have the backing of the president. Florentino Pérez has already demonstrated this with the dignity in his reaction to the circumstances surrounding Julen’s appointment to Real Madrid at the start of the World Cup.
But as soon as the league games kick off in earnest, once again it’s going to be all about results; just like it was for his predecessors. One thing that hasn’t helped him though is the difficulties he encountered in pre-season due to players being away on World Cup duty.
It will have been a surreal situation for the new Madrid coach; who returned home early from his own World Cup but then had to watch and wait for updates on those players who remained in Russia.
This made getting any reasonable preparations made with a restricted squad difficult to say the least. The continuity of training was interrupted as players arrived at all stages of the pre-season period and it meant constantly adapting.
One big positive sign though is that the younger members of the squad seem to identify with Julen and his approach.
So perhaps this will mean a shift in focus towards giving increased game time and responsibilities to Isco and Marco Asensio; with perhaps even more opportunities for Dani Ceballos to stake his claim for a regular first team place.
This new era will also affect the older players in the squad. Karim Benzema has been virtually a constant presence in Valdebebas for the last two years due to being out of favour with the French national team; and he’s also grown in stature at the club throughout that period.
Through training hard with the youngsters and Castilla during virtually every international weekend, Real’s newer and younger players will see Karim as the experienced senior professional who just gets on with things; irrespective of what might be going on inside or outside the confines of the first team squad.
So this could well be the era that defines Karim Benzema’s own contribution to Real Madrid; particularly in the eyes of the public and the media ‘experts’ who make such a habit of comparing him unfavourably to lesser strikers with a much higher profile!
Despite all the changes, the senior players who form the backbone of the team remain. Sergio Ramos, Nacho and Raphaël Varane will compete for the central defensive places as usual; Luka Modrić will be in the midfield once again as will Toni Kroos and Casemiro.
Although the attack looks to be the combination most people would expect, the situation is less clear as to who’s going to be between the posts. We’ll have to wait and see who gets the shout as the number one and it may take a few matches before that decision is finally made.
As always, a key factor will be the injury situation and more specifically who is going to be affected. It’s not something that anyone can predict; but as we all know injuries can dictate how the season progresses and some players have suffered more than others in that respect.
It will be totally unrealistic to expect that Real Madrid - or any club for that matter – can go through a whole season without picking up at least a couple of longer-term injuries; and that unfortunately is something that’s supported by statistics irrespective of the sources.
It will be interesting to see what the new management’s approach is with regards to training and injury prevention. Under Zidane, the focus was on high intensity work while with Rafa Benítez before him the emphasis was on 80% working with the ball and the other 20% on the physical side.
Rafa’s approach to training was also very much focussed on injury prevention; as was Zidane’s but in a different way.
So as we enter this new era, it will be interesting to compare Julen Lopetegui’s tenure with that of his predecessors.
Real Madrid didn’t start last season too well as everyone pointed out; and yet finished up as Champions of Europe for the third successive time.
Atlético will be claiming that title at the moment thanks to their victory in midweek; but once the proper games begin we’ll have a better idea of how the season is likely to unfold!