Ronaldo raises Real's curtain in style
The stage was set for Gareth Bale ahead of the European Super Cup in Cardiff. Carlo Ancelotti was drawn on the Welshman's chances of claiming a Ballon d'Or, as was former Real manager John Toshack, who handed the 16-year-old Bale his international debut in 2006.
The Welsh media was bouncing with excitement at the return of their favourite son. One even went so far as to describe Real Madrid 2014-15 as the "real Galacticos."
Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo was almost conspicuous by his absence. A preseason hampered by a nagging injury had reduced his appearances to a cameo against his old club, Manchester United, in the United States. Ronaldo was on the margins, all eyes and column inches dedicated to Bale's triumphant return to his homeland and the expected debuts of summer signings Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez. Iker Casillas' admission in the prematch news conference that he had been under par for club and country further focused the spotlight away from the Portuguese prima donna.
But when the curtain goes up at Real Madrid, there is room on the stage for only player. And that is how Ronaldo likes it. Not for nothing did the Bernabéu hierarchy go to great lengths to hide the real outlay required to persuade Daniel Levy to part with Bale last summer. Of all the prematch questions fielded by the two sides, perhaps the most prescient was aimed at Beto, the man charged with keeping Real at bay. "Ronaldo has arrived with no fanfare. Is he just as intimidating?"
The hero of Turin replied: "He's the best in the world. He doesn't need a preseason."
And so it proved in Cardiff as Real strolled to a 2-0 victory over Sevilla, with both goals provided by the No. 7. James and Kroos took their Real bows, Casillas kept a much-needed clean sheet, and Bale thrilled the crowd, but the front pages on Wednesday will be dominated by a familiar story line.
Ancelotti played much as had been anticipated, drafting Kroos in place of the suspended Xabi Alonso in the midfield, where the German exuded a calm authority that neither of Real's Basque holding midfielders will have watched with comfort. James, in contrast, did little to suggest that the club's obsession with ridding themselves of Angel di Maria is sound business sense, unless a similar fee is recouped. The Colombian is an exciting player and will doubtless fit into the systems at Ancelotti's disposal given time, but whether or not he is a significant improvement on the Argentinean will keep the Spanish sports dailies busy until September 1, and possibly beyond.
Ancelotti opted in Cardiff for a 4-3-3, but he has the personnel to adapt to different formations during games as and when required. James, as the Italian noted before the game, can operate across the attacking positions, and that may be just as well with Karim Benzema being the only fit striker at his disposal. An awkward tumble when trying to steal behind the Sevilla defence in the first half caused the France striker to motion to the bench, but fortunately he was able to continue.
A midfield of Kroos, Luka Modric and James was attractive enough, but Dani Carvajal certainly missed the presence of Alonso, or Sami Khedira, screening the back four. Twice in the first half the Spain right-back was beaten and Sevilla exploited the space behind him with enthusiasm. Carvajal was lucky not to concede a card for cynically breaking up a counter-attack in Sevilla's half -- Pepe did him a favour by doing so far more blatantly in Real territory under Mark Clattenburg's nose. Carvajal followed the Portuguese into the book later when given the slip by the exciting Barça B loanee Denis Suárez, and whatever formula Ancelotti settles upon in the opening weeks of the season, it will require considerably more discipline in defensive cover.
However, Casillas was not unduly threatened by a Sevilla side damaged -- possibly beyond repair as things stand -- by the losses of Ivan Rakitic, Marko Marin and Stephane Mbia, although the latter's free-agent status ought to be rescinded by mutual consent. The news shortly before kickoff that Alberto Moreno's protracted move to Liverpool had gone through hardly aids the Sevilla cause. But in Unai Emery the Andalusia club has one the finest managers in La Liga, and they will hardly struggle this season, even if the sight of Iago Aspas climbing off the bench was a grim reminder of where the club stands in the transfer market these days; Sevilla's current pulling power is epitomized by reported interest in Pedro Leon. How the fans' hearts must have missed a beat or two when they heard A. Vidal had been captured; but Almeria's Aleix is not the answer to their prayers.
Federico Fazio remains at the Sanchez Pizjuan and the Argentinean was a rock in defence, breaking up countless attacks and throwing himself on to every cross and loose ball. But even he could not prevent Ronaldo from stealing the show. Bale provided a pinpoint cross that just eluded the Sevilla captain, and the Portugal forward leapt on the chance to steer home past Beto. Ronaldo's second, a rasping left-footed drive across the Sevilla keeper just after the break, effectively ended the contest.
It also ended a minor debate going into the match; one that for now at least will be placed on a shelf marked "December." Unless Ronaldo decides to retire, or discovers a burning desire to experience the rough and tumble of life in the Scottish second division, the shortlist for upcoming Ballons d'Or will be shorter every year. A Germany international may well expect to challenge for the 2015 gong, but Bale, for now at least, will have to remain content with his role as understudy.