Three Points: Real Madrid vs. Sevilla
CARDIFF, Wales -- Three observations from Real Madrid's 2-0 UEFA Super Cup win over Sevilla.
Never write off Ronaldo
With his slick-backed hair and hulking muscles, Gareth Bale had not only stolen the signature look of Cristiano Ronaldo in the lead-up to the UEFA Super Cup, he had robbed the Portuguese of the limelight. Returning to Cardiff, playing in a stadium just four miles south of where he first honed his 85-million-pound talent at Whitchurch High School, it was all about Bale's return to South Wales.
The talk was of how Real Madrid's newly Herculean No. 11 could carry the burden of expectation. Real would no longer be all about Ronaldo, last seen unfit and unimpressive for Portugal at the World Cup.
Only, they are still all about Ronaldo. Bale is certainly capable of taking on that mantle -- he showed as much last season with decisive interventions in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League final -- but for now, Ronaldo remains the main man. The Portuguese boasts frightening statistics aplenty and it is Sevilla who can justifiably be the most fearful. A match-winning brace in Cardiff extended Ronaldo's record to 18 goals in 12 games against the Andalusians -- he has scored more goals against them than any other side since moving to Spain.
Ronaldo's role in clinching La Decima in Lisbon three months ago may have only been that of cake-icer, but La Segunda -- the admittedly less-illustrious-sounding second Super Cup triumph for Real Madrid -- was secured thanks to him. Bale was the provider for the opener, swinging his luminous left foot at the ball and finding Ronaldo, who in turn found a sliding fish.
The Portuguese had looked a little rusty at the off, understandable after a long fitness battle that stretches back to April, but by the time the deadlock had broken, he had settled into the game -- performing an uproarious mid-air back-heel to nudge the ball to James Rodriguez and delight the Cardiff crowd.
In the second half, Ronaldo cemented his place front and centre of the European stage he loves so much. Karim Benzema's neat pass left was controlled, before a left-foot shot thundered beyond the grasp of Beto -- Sevilla's Europa League final penalty shootout hero in Turin last May.
It has been 12 long years since Real last graced the Super Cup. That 3-1 victory over Feyenoord preceded a La Liga title-winning campaign, and if Ronaldo continues in this vein, it is difficult to see Carlo Ancelotti & Co. being denied domestic honours this season.
Exploring new Galacticos
When the teamsheets were dished out at the Cardiff City Stadium, they were greeted with head-scratching from the assembled media. The neutrals may have been salivating at the prospect of Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric all starting in the same XI, but surely the accommodation of more than 100 million euros of new talent would result in a potentially disastrous absence of balance?
The midfield two of Modric and Kroos posed the biggest conundrum. The prospect of overlooking Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso this season seems reminiscent of the sale of Claude Makelele almost a decade ago, a decision that -- driven by Florentino Perez's obsession with Galacticos -- resulted in a sharp decline in Los Blancos' fortunes.
Yes, Modric had some experience playing in such an attackingly adventurous formation when he partnered Ivan Rakitic in Croatia's midfield at the World Cup, but a tough-tackling general he is not, while Kroos had the security of Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger filling that brief alongside him at Bayern Munich last season.
In Cardiff, both patiently patrolled but it was new boy Kroos who really caught the eye. Exerting poise and control on each occasion the ball was at his feet, the World Cup winner oozed confidence and threw himself into challenge after challenge -- although one second-half lunge resulted in a booking. There were crossfield balls and interceptions, but it was Kroos' meticulous passing that really made him a metronomic presence in the Real midfield. His positional discipline will face sterner tests against more-expansive opponents than Sevilla this season, but the early signs appear good for Real.
Real's other big-money arrival was a little less prevalent and one feels it may take a little time to slot the precocious James into a position that best benefits the Colombian and his teammates. Consigned to the left for most of the game, it was difficult for James to wield any influence but there were glimpses of the sort of guile that saw him dazzle at the World Cup, notably a rasping shot that Beto superbly tipped away to deny him a debut goal.
May's Europa League triumph must already seem an age ago for Sevilla. The departure of captain Ivan Rakitic has, as expected, left a hole in the team that seems impossible to fill. Sevilla's status as a selling club is a pragmatic position that has seen sporting director Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo commendably maintain success over a decade that has seen the Andalusians lose the likes of Sergio Ramos, Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo.
It is the long-term strategy but in the short term, it has a detrimental effect on the first team. Denis Suarez is an exuberant replacement for Rakitic but is too raw to step into the Croatian's boots. Even against Real's forward-thinking midfield, he was unable to find the spaces that Rakitic so often proved adept at floating between.
In midfield, too, Sevilla lacked authority. Stephane Mbia was a buccaneering addition on loan last season and his energy levels were almost otherworldly in 120 minutes against Benfica in Turin three months ago. Grzegorz Krychowiak has been brought in from Reims in his stead to partner Daniel Carrico -- he was completely overrun by Real's glut of Galacticos but it was admittedly a baptism of fire -- two outstanding years in French football still bode well.
Another player appears to be on his way, too. Left-back Alberto Moreno -- about whom Unai Emery stated in his pregame news conference "I expect him to play for us tomorrow" -- was nowhere to be seen in the XI or the substitutes bench.
The claim that Emery had dropped him to avoid the prospect of a difficult night against Ronaldo and Bale forcing his price down provoked sniggers among many in Cardiff. In reality, it seems an 18-million-euro move to Liverpool already awaits, with the Spanish full-back tearful as he reappeared to embrace his teammates after the game.
Mark Lomas is a journalist and editor working for ESPN FC. He reported on Euro 2012, couch-surfing his way around Ukraine, and has travelled across Europe covering the beautiful game. You can follow him on twitter @MarkLomasESPN.