Few tweaks will maintain Madrid's mastery
Real Madrid kick-off the defence of their La Liga crown against Valencia at the Bernabeu on Sunday night.
Almost 100 days have passed since Jose Mourinho and his men ended Barca's dominance in Spain with a 4-1 victory over Mallorca that capped off a title-winning season at the Bernabeu. It sounds like a lifetime away from football, but in reality the close season has flown by. Aided by Euro 2012, and a Spanish success that included numerous Madrid players, and the London Olympics, there's barely been time to catch breath on the sporting front over the summer.
And that's just the armchair viewing. Spare a thought for poor old Marcelo. A long, hard season with Madrid domestically, the defender had time for a quick holiday and then off he went to England to feature for Brazil in the Olympic Games. A once in a lifetime opportunity, true, but the jet-heeled full-back has hardly had much of a pre-season to prepare for what's set to be another rip-roaring campaign for Los Blancos in 2012-13.
The post-season celebrations at the Plaza de Cibeles may now be a distant memory for Madridistas, but they'll be hoping, and firmly believing, that all roads lead back to the famous fountain where Madrid celebrate their title successes.
A Copa del Rey in 2011, Mourinho's first season in charge. A Liga trophy at the end of 2012, the year the 'Special One' - or should that be the 'Only One', according to the man himself in light of becoming the first man to win the top league titles in England, Italy and Spain - highlighted as the season where league success would realistically come. What for 2013? The aims for Mourinho and Madrid are simple, on paper at least, both league and Champions League glory, please.
That's the target. Ambitious? Maybe. For a lot of clubs. Not where Los Blancos are concerned. Madridistas think challenging for the Champions League should be the norm, and although that will probably come across as arrogant, it's a real possibility this season. Anything else, dare I say it, may well be a slight disappointment, a failure to build on last season's record-breaking campaign. They're the standards being set by Mourinho.
They say defending your crown is tougher than claiming it in the first place, and that could well be the case for Madrid this season. Barca will be a wounded animal. No league success, no Champions League glory. For a team that's used to winning trophy after trophy, that's a big disappointment. For a team who undoubtedly thrive on winning and on being the best, it's almost unacceptable.
Pundits said that Barca may have found it difficult to find their drive last season after winning so much the year before. If that was the case, expect that drive to be firmly back in place at the Camp Nou this campaign, led by a new man in Tito Vilanova. And let's not kid ourselves - La Liga is only going one of two places this season.
Euro 2012 and the Olympics may have played a part in fast-forwarding the pre-season, but Madrid's lack of activity in the transfer market could also be another reason. I say lack, Mourinho has signed no new players this summer - yet. This is a club, led by Florentino Perez, that likes to create shockwaves in the transfer market. Galacticos here, Galacticos there. While the true 'Galactico' era may have passed, recent summer additions have come in the shape of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria. Yet not a penny has been spent in strengthening the squad this summer - a backing-up of just how good Los Blancos were last season.
Madrid's first-team squad has been strengthened in other ways, however, with Castilla striker Alvaro Morata finally being promoted after a couple of seasons of real promise in the club's second string. Madridistas have been long admirers of the Madrid-born striker and although he probably won't be a regular feature, he's sure to get more first-team action.
Going in the other direction is Hamit Altintop, who's gone to Galatasaray, Fernando Gago, who's set to line-up against Madrid for Valencia, as well as Sergio Canales, and Royston Drenthe, who was released. There could still be plenty of business done before the close of the summer transfer window in a few weeks' time. Tottenham's Luka Modric has been seemingly days away from arriving at the Bernabeu since pre-season started but the Croatian midfielder has yet to depart White Hart Lane. A move has yet to be finalised but Modric looks set to be Madrid's big summer signing, whether that be today, tomorrow or hours before the close of the window. His arrival could open the door to Kaka's departure. Linked with Paris St Germain, former club Milan and a return home to Brazil, the forward has failed to hit the heights of his time at the San Siro and Modric's arrival could be seen as a like-for-like change.
Nuri Sahin, too, has been rumoured to be on his way this summer. Premier League duo Arsenal and Tottenham have been leading the chase for his signature, according to reports, and he could be included as part of a deal to take Modric to the Spanish capital. Liverpool have also shown interest and now seem to be in pole position for a season-long loan deal, with a view to a permanent deal at the end of it.
It proved a tough first season at Madrid for the Turkish international. Suffering a pre-season injury that immediately put him on the back foot following his move from Borussia Dortmund, Sahin never really recovered and only managed a handful of appearances. But he showed quality, and plenty of it, in Germany, it's just a case of whether Mourinho will give him a chance this term. Filling in at left-back during Madrid's successful tour to America leads me to think probably not.
Despite any potential comings and goings, Madrid still have the strongest squad in La Liga on paper. Gonzalo Higuain remains, despite summer rumours linking him with big-spending Paris St Germain and Juventus, to form what'll hopefully be another lethal combination with Karim Benzema in attack. Ozil will provide the ammunition, as he did 17 times last season, as will di Maria, who provided 15 assists despite only starting 16 games due to injury last season. If the Argentine remains fully fit throughout the campaign he could prove even more lethal than Ozil. Sergio Ramos was moved to centre-back and it proved a masterstroke alongside Pepe, while the ever dependable Iker Casillas will do what he does, and then there's the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Los Blancos, while still hopeful of bolstering their squad before the transfer window is out, will be settled. No big changes, and none were required given the performances last season and the records smashed en-route to the title. Just little bits here and there that will help Mourinho's men stay ahead of Barca and go that one step extra in search of their next European crown. In contrast, Pep has gone and Tito Vilanova steps up. Can he make the grade? Will the changes impact on the Barca side that we've known for the last couple of years?
All will be revealed when La Liga kicks-off this Sunday. Hala Madrid!