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Three talking points ahead of Athletic Club vs Real Madrid

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Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

Real Madrid played their last league game of the 2022/23 campaign just under 70 days ago. They faced Athletic Club de Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu in a gruelling game that was drawn only thanks to a penalty from Karim Benzema.

The encounter marked the end of many storylines for Los Blancos. The most significant of them all, however, was that it was Karim Benzema’s final game in white.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side are now gearing up to play their first official game without the French superstar. Incidentally, it is once again the same opposition that they face.

There is a world of difference between the Real Madrid that faced Ernesto Valverde’s side 70 days ago and the team that will step onto the field tonight. The only target will be to better the 1-1 draw that they managed last time around against the Basque opposition.

Madrid Universal brings you three talking points ahead of Athletic Club vs Real Madrid.

Objective La Liga

Real Madrid are the undisputed kings of Europe. In the past decade, they have conquered the pinnacle of football a stunning five times including their most recent scalp in 2021/22.

Their record in La Liga is not nearly as impeccable. Real Madrid have 35 league titles to their name, yet have won it just four times since 2009.

To conquer Europe but not Spain is a reflection of Real Madrid’s relative inability to maintain consistency through the season. They are capable of pulling their guns out on demand in knockout games but often fall short in La Liga through momentum swings.

As they prepare to step onto the grass for a new campaign, it is clear that La Liga will be one of their key objectives.

Last year, Carlo Ancelotti’s side finished second in the league standings with 78 points to their name. They won 24 games and lost a staggering eight matches in the domestic competition.

Eventually, Los Blancos fell short of Barcelona’s tally by ten points and have no one but themselves to blame for the same.

Tonight, the men in white begin their new season with a difficult clash at San Mames. With La Liga placed as one of their top priorities, they must get off on the right foot against Athletic Club.

Ancelotti’s million-dollar question

A big test for Ancelotti and Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

To say Karim Benzema was the heart of Real Madrid’s setup in recent years would be an understatement. The French striker single-handily carried the team game after game at times and was their primary protagonist in the forward line.

His departure leaves a void that simply cannot be filled by tactical adjustments. Real Madrid are a club that look to capitalise on the break, and their chances of doing so drop significantly without a central striker.

Ancelotti has been forced to switch to a 4-4-2 diamond system in lieu of Benzema’s departure, and tonight’s game will be the first time the combination is tested in an official game.

Aurelien Tchouameni is expected to start at the base of the diamond with Federico Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga playing in central midfield. Jude Bellingham will likely sit behind the forward duo of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo Goes.

There are thus some big questions to be answered by the men in white. Can Vinicius recreate his magic in a central role? Is there too much pressure on Bellingham? Will the 4-4-2 at least partially fill the void left by Benzema’s departure? Only time will tell.

A goalkeeping crisis

As if the variables in Ancelotti’s setup were not enough, Thibaut Courtois’ ACL injury adds a new cloud of worry ahead of the season opener.

The Belgian shot-stopper is set to undergo surgery and will likely miss the entirety of the 2023/24 campaign for his recovery. Real Madrid are now dangerously vulnerable in the back.

For starters, the shift to a 4-4-2 inherently increases the pressure on centre-backs. With the champion goalkeeper now ruled out, Real Madrid could be in for serious trouble in defence.

The Merengues are working hard to sign a replacement, with Kepa Arrizabalaga said to be on his way. But, Andriy Lunin will start in goal on the night, staring his career’s biggest opportunity in the eye.

The Ukrainian international has been at the exit door for a while now. He was frustrated by his lack of minutes at the club, but things are different now with Courtois facing a lengthy time on the sidelines. And he will look to make the most of his chance tonight.

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Features

Five players who will be fixed starters for Real Madrid next season

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Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

Following a successful campaign, Real Madrid are poised for significant changes in their roster due to a combination of player arrivals and departures.

The responsibility of blending new faces with established stars will fall to coach Carlo Ancelotti and his staff as they aim to maintain the club’s competitive edge domestically and in Europe.

And to predict the team’s probable strategy and performance amidst these changes, it is imperative to identify the key players who will be constant starters.

Kylian Mbappe

The new talisman. (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

With Real Madrid no longer viewing Mbappe through rose-tinted lenses and finally being able to dress him in the royal white jersey, the Frenchman is expected to be one of the first names on the team sheet.

Owing to his instinctive nature to find the back of the net, he is poised to be paired alongside Vinicius Jr. in attack.

Last season, the 2018 World Cup winner scored a whopping 44 goals in all competitions. Thus Real Madrid will be banking heavily on Mbappe’s ability to ask questions of opposition defenders in the final third.

It is being said that Mbappe is all set to wear the iconic number 9 jersey at Real Madrid, which is indicative of the role he will play, as a focal striker.

Vinicius Jr.

The main man at Real Madrid. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The Brazilian is in pole position to win the Ballon d’Or this year, and looking back on his season with Real Madrid, it is easy to see why.

Despite losing Karim Benzema, his usual partner in crime over the past few years, Vinicius performed remarkably well in Ancelotti’s new system.

Relentlessly taking on defenders, arriving into space, scoring goals, and stepping up in the biggest of moments, he was one of Real Madrid’s major lynchpins throughout the season as they lifted a historic double.

Vinicius impressively racked up 24 goals last season, and given his importance to the team, the likelihood of him not maintaining a starting role next season is nearly nonexistent.

Jude Bellingham

Real Madrid Fans’ Player of the Season. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Defying all expectations in his debut season, Jude Bellingham established himself as a key player for Real Madrid, demonstrating exceptional versatility, and maturity far beyond his years.

Although the Englishman’s performances wavered in the final stretch of the season, Bellingham’s contributions ensured Los Blancos were able to compete in the Champions League and especially La Liga.

In addition to scoring 23 goals in all competitions, he has constantly been a beacon of reliability in midfield and has proven to be the voice of reason on the pitch.

There have been murmurs about Bellingham potentially being berthed deeper next season as Real Madrid intends to use him as Kroos’ replacement. However, given his versatility, he is expected to be a crucial player wherever he plays.

Antonio Rudiger

A mainstay at the back. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Rudiger is one of the major reasons Real Madrid managed to successfully disguise their injury crisis. Despite players falling like dominos in the back-line, the German stood resolutely as a dependable figure for most of the campaign, arguably enjoying one of his best seasons.

Expertly anticipating opposition strikers’ movements, he leaps forward to thwart attacks before they begin. Moreover, thanks to his large stature and incredible recovery pace, he is able to cover distances behind.

Reports have mentioned that Carlo Ancelotti views him as a crucial component of the squad and potential arrivals, such as those of Leny Yoro and Rafa Marin, in the back-line are unlikely to devalue his presence.

Thibaut Courtois

Back like he was never gone. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

In spite of spending more than half of the campaign on the sidelines recovering from an ACL and MCL injury, Courtois is worth his weight in gold for Real Madrid.

He performed admirably in the final few games of the season and did no wrong against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League final.

While Andriy Lunin made up for his absence with flying colours, he is placed below Courtois in the pecking order for now, which also has made the Ukrainian lean towards an exit.

The fact that Lunin, after his sublime season, stands no chance of dethroning Courtois between the sticks is a testament to how much the club appreciates the Belgian. Even at the age of 32, the Belgian keeper is anticipated to retain an important role in the team.

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