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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 22 hours ago
Read
Aug 19, 2014

Super Cup previews Madrid's best XI

The outcome of the Spanish Super Cup is often taken with a pinch of salt. Last season, Barcelona clinched victory on away goals against Atletico Madrid but ended the season empty-handed while Atleti went on to win an historic title.

The season before, Real Madrid's victory over Barca counted for little as manager Jose Mourinho left the Bernabeu at the end of the season having failed to add any silverware to his, or the club's, trophy cabinet. In contrast, runners-up Barcelona cruised to the title.

In 2011 the Catalans edged out Mourinho's Madrid but Los Blancos claimed La Liga back from their archrivals.

The two-legged tie may provide the first trophy of Spain's domestic season but victory does not necessarily indicate what is to come from the following Liga campaign. New signings are still bedding in, match fitness is still being ramped up and formations are still being ironed out. The Super Cup offers the perfect platform as a step up between preseason and the start of the new league campaign and although clinching the first cup of the season is welcome, defeat is not the end of the world.

Tuesday's match at the Bernabeu, the first leg of this season's Super Cup, should provide some indications as to what Madrid fans can expect from the coming season, however. Neighbours Atletico will provide tough opposition and both sides will be desperate for victory for different reasons. This season's competition will have a little extra spice added to it, despite both legs coming just a week before the teams kick off their league campaigns.

Diego Simeone's men have waited three months to avenge their Champions League final defeat in Lisbon. Los Colchoneros were minutes away from lifting a first European Cup and in turn deny their neighbours a much sought-after La Decima before Sergio Ramos headed in a dramatic leveller and extra-time goals from Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Los Blancos home.

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo have been enjoying prolific preseasons for Real Madrid.

Atleti are also chasing a first Super Cup victory since 1985. Mix in the El Derbi factor and the fact Madrid are looking to win all six possible trophies this season and this week's doubleheader will be more than just a warm-up for the new season.

Here are the biggest points of interest for Madrid ahead of Tuesday night's match:

The form of Iker Casillas

Carlo Ancelotti has been tight-lipped over his starting lineup for the first leg but Iker Casillas' starting role has long been confirmed. The Spain international is going head-to-head with new arrival Keylor Navas for a starting role this season after the departure of Diego Lopez to Milan and the Blancos boss has given little away as to who will be the regular starter this term.

Casillas was at fault for Atleti's opener in the Champions League final and also had a nightmare as Spain endured a horror-show defence of their World Cup in Brazil. Those performances seemed to be the final nails in the coffin of the Blancos legend with a move away from the Spanish capital mooted over the summer. Casillas doesn't just look like he's staying at the Bernabeu, however, it looks like he could be promoted to No. 1 after a year-and-a-half as backup.

The 33-year-old started in Madrid's UEFA Super Cup victory over Sevilla in Cardiff and played well under the pressure of Costa Rica World Cup star Navas watching on from the bench. Now it seems like the Spanish Super Cup could provide a straight shootout between the pair with Ancelotti hinting that he will field a different starting XI for the second leg on Friday. More errors from Casillas on the big stage could hand the advantage to Navas but a strong performance between the sticks will leave Ancelotti with a selection headache ahead of Monday's first La Liga match for Los Merengues against Cordoba.

The futures of Angel di Maria and Sami Khedira

Will they play or won't they? Much has been reported surrounding the futures of Angel di Maria and Sami Khedira, and Ancelotti's team selection will be watched with interest.

The pair have both been included in the Italian's squad for the match and both featured in Madrid's friendly clash against Fiorentina in Poland on Saturday without a hint of injury. Di Maria provided a man-of-the-match performance in his first game back following the World Cup, hitting the ground running after his last match for the club, another man-of-the-match showing in Lisbon in May.

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Form suggests at least Di Maria should line up for Los Blancos, but whether Ancelotti will risk the fitness of a man who could bring in up to 70 million pounds in the coming weeks remains to be seen. A starting XI without the former Benfica man could provide the biggest hint yet that he will leave the Spanish capital before the transfer window slams shut at the end of this month, with Manchester United now reported to be leading the chase for his signature.

Khedira did not shine in Poland as Di Maria did but a possible departure to the Premier League or the Bundesliga this month could mean the German is stuck to the Bernabeu bench, especially with the arrival of Toni Kroos to feature alongside Xabi Alonso, who missed the UEFA Super Cup through suspension, and the Duracell bunny that is Luka Modric in midfield.

Who will grab the goals?

While Cristiano Ronaldo eased concerns over his fitness with an impressive performance in Cardiff last week, only Gareth Bale has found the net in what has been an up-and-down preseason for Madrid. The Portuguese has bagged three goals in his past two matches and the Welshman scored Madrid's only two goals in their tour of the United States.

Nobody else has managed to get on the score sheet so far this summer, however, and while Ronaldo and Bale will undoubtedly be Los Blancos' leading goal scorers this season, Madrid need to show they do not rely solely on the duo to find the back of the net. Karim Benzema needs to step up and an expected midfield of Alonso, Kroos and Modric need to chip in with their fair share of goals, too. Sergio Ramos' useful goal threat toward the end of last season needs to be rekindled, too.

Benzema in particular needs to showcase his goal-scoring threat after penning a new big-money contract extension this summer. The Frenchman suffered a slow and frustrating start last season and the Bernabeu crowd soon got on his back. While that acted somewhat as a kick up the backside, Benzema doesn't want the same to happen a year on, especially with James Rodriguez waiting in the wings and Jese Rodriguez on his way back from injury.

Where James Rodriguez will fit in

Ancelotti has a squad that is the envy of most around the world but with that luxury comes a selection headache, albeit not the worst dilemma in the world. The European champions already had a world-class squad but that has been improved by the signing of World Cup stars Kroos and Rodriguez. While the German World Cup winner is all but guaranteed a starting role, the same cannot be said for the Colombian forward, despite having cost three times as much.

For now, at least, big-money arrival James Rodriguez appears consigned to a place on the Real Madrid bench.

The Italian has hinted that the former Monaco man will not be a regular starter early on, saying: "James needs to adapt to his new life, his new teammates." Rodriguez also plays at his best just off the front man, and with Ancelotti also hinting that he will stick with his tried-and-tested 4-3-3 instead of switching to a 4-2-3-1 that could accommodate the player, a place on the bench is the most likely spot for the youngster, especially early on in the season.

Rodriguez has also been tested in the "false 9" role in the absence of Benzema, but that was an experiment that didn't work. With an abundance of talented midfielders jostling for places in Ancelotti's middle three, Rodriguez is set to be a bit-part player in the early stages of the campaign.

The magic of Toni Kroos

While Rodriguez was the blockbuster signing, World Cup-winner Kroos has been Los Blancos' biggest capture of the summer.

Although going all the way with Germany in Brazil, and being arguably the player of the competition even though the post-tournament awards said otherwise, Kroos has fit into Ancelotti's squad seamlessly and has shown no sign of fatigue. Madrid have been keen to get Kroos integrated quickly and the early indications show that he's done so perfectly.

The legs of Alonso are not getting any younger and with Asier Illarramendi, the midfielder's intended replacement, not making the strides forward that many had hoped, Kroos is set to be the perfect addition to make Madrid even stronger than they were last season.

Los Merengues may have a lethal counterattack, but Ancelotti has been keen for his side to enjoy more possession ever since his arrival and Kroos is the perfect man to provide that. Ronaldo and Bale are the poster boys but Kroos is the man who is set to make Madrid tick this season. If there was a fault in Los Blancos' play last season it was that they were sometimes overrun in the middle of the park against sides such as Atleti and Barca, but Kroos' presence should help put an end to that.

Nicholas Rigg

Nicholas Rigg writes about Real Madrid for ESPN FC and also blogs about La Liga for The Independent. Former sports journalist at the Wakefield Express and the editor of Vital Sheffield Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @nicholasrigg.

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