Real Madrid have finally kicked off 2023/24 and they’ve done so with a 2-0 victory at Athletic Club, complete with a memorable debut for Jude Bellingham. It wasn’t all positive, though, as Éder Militão went off with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. Here, in this three questions and three answers piece, we go through all the talking points, the good and the bad.
1. Would Ancelotti keep the pre-season diamond for this season opener?
Real Madrid’s 2023/24 pre-season games were a lot more interesting than in most summers, because Ancelotti really did try new things and he seriously experimented with a diamond formation, led by Jude Bellingham and featuring mostly young players. Would he keep that up for the first competitive game of the new season? Yes, he actually did go with the diamond and with a young team, with tonight’s starting XI having an average age of just 24.7. And, it worked, with Bellingham especially impressive. By opting for youth and energy, Real Madrid actually played with more intensity than Athletic Club at San Mamés, something few teams can ever say after a visit to Bilbao. It was a statement of intent to start the season.
2. Could Real Madrid exploit Athletic’s centre-back issues?
Coming into this game, Real Madrid’s forwards must have been licking their lips given the injury to Athletic’s starting centre-back Yeray Álvarez. That, combined with the fact that last season’s other starting centre-back, Iñigo Martínez, has just left, meant it’d be Aitor Paredes and Dani Vivian forming a makeshift central defensive pairing, something Matt Wiltse wrote about here. Could Los Blancos exploit that? Yes, yes they could, with the first goal helped by some sloppy defending to leave Rodrygo so free. Perhaps Los Blancos could have done more to test the makeshift back line, and it would have been interesting to see Joselu brought on earlier, but Real Madrid did enough for the three points.
3. What kind of reception would Carvajal receive?
Dani Carvajal stepped out in San Mamés wearing the captain’s armband and was immediately whistled by the Basque crowd. Why? Because of the right-back’s reckless horror tackle in the final game of last season, which left Yuri Berchiche with a fractured fibula. Given the anger felt in Bilbao over that challenge, Carvajal must have known that he’d be public enemy number one in this game. And, sure enough, he was booed every time he touched the ball and was the subject of a few early challenges by the Athletic players, who were keen to leave their mark. Carvajal responded by playing with some fury of his own, which he converted into an assist for Rodrygo’s opener. From there, the anger from the crowd passed from Carvajal to their own team and the right-back saw out the match without any drama.
1. How serious is Éder Militão’s injury?
You have to wonder what Real Madrid did to upset the injury gods this week. Just days after Courtois’ ACL injury, Éder Militão went down with what appeared to be another knee injury. How serious is it? Well, it was good news that he was able to walk off and didn’t need a stretcher. But, we won’t know how serious it is until he has tests back in Madrid. You just have to hope, for the Brazilian’s sake above all, that it’s not a second long-term injury of the week.
2. Will Lunin remain the starter or will it immediately be Kepa?
As for the Courtois injury, he was kept in his teammates’ minds as they stepped out for this game wearing a special t-shirt of support. One of those teammates was Lunin, and this match represented a huge opportunity for the 24-year-old. Suddenly and unexpectedly propelled into the starting XI, Lunin knew he had to put in good performance to try to keep the spot, aware that Kepa is surely on his way. It was a slightly nervous start for the Ukrainian, but he quickly settled down and looked confident, doing the little that was asked of him well. If Kepa does arrive in the next few days, will Lunin get to keep the gloves for now or will the Spaniard immediately be given the job? That’s the big question for Ancelotti.
3. Will Alaba keep taking set pieces in the absence of Kroos and Modrić?
Neither Kroos nor Modrić started this game, a clear sign of the midfield transition we’re probably going to see this season. Most fans were probably glad to see a more youthful midfield, but one parallel consequence of the absence of both Kroos and Modrić was the lack of two of the best set piece takers in the squad. David Alaba was the one putting most of the balls into the box from corners or freekicks, including the assist for the Bellingham goal. The Austrian is certainly a great crosser of the ball, but it’s not ideal that this leaves only one centre-back inside the penalty area to try to connect and that it leaves a centre-back well out of position if the opposition launches a counter-attack, as happened at one second-half corner. It’ll be interesting to see who keeps taking these kinds of set pieces if Kroos and Modrić are left out regularly.