Real rebound starts with Cordoba
After the trauma of losing the Super Cup to Atletico Madrid -- and a 15-year unbeaten record at the Vicente Calderon -- the return to the 38-game format of La Liga is a welcome one for Real Madrid. The euphoria of their stirring comeback in Lisbon to deny Diego Simeone's side an unlikely Champions League victory will take some time to subside, but the pointlessly two-legged Spanish showdown provided an unwelcome reminder that Carlo Ancelotti's team is far from a finished article.
Despite dominating possession against Simeone's ragtag bunch, a footballing version of the Dirty Dozen, Real managed just one goal over 180 minutes and didn't threaten as much in the final third as the amount of time they spent on the ball warranted. True, Atletico is a rare beast in the modern game, based on the foundation of hard work and harassment, and Real won't face the level of intensity demanded by Simeone week in and week out, but the shortcomings in Ancelotti's squad were laid bare in the Calderon.
Real's midfield three of Xabi Alonso, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric has yet to build an understanding, and the lack of linkup with the forward line reduced Real to probing with the long ball too often. When faced with one from the other end of the pitch, Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos were unable to clear it, the latter inexplicably allowing pint-sized Antoine Griezmann to get the better of him. The defensive frailty at set pieces that has hampered Real in recent seasons has yet to be resolved, despite the incorporation of Fernando Hierro on the coaching staff. How he must have cringed every time the defence slavishly moved toward incoming free kicks and corners, leaving inviting spaces for the opposition.
James Rodriguez was arguably Real's best player in the Calderon, but his best position on this Real team is unclear. Karim Benzema, Real's only striker going into the season, mustered a single, off-target shot over the two legs. Kroos excelled in the first leg but was hauled off at halftime in the second, when surely Alonso should have made way; what pace the Basque once had has utterly deserted him, and his desperate lunges are becoming far more frequent.
With Kroos absent, James was forced to drift inside in search of the ball, which diminished his influence to the extent he too was benched for Isco. Real's game-changer on so many occasions last season, Angel di Maria, is set to leave for Manchester United; time will judge the sagacity of that decision, even if Ancelotti described it as the Argentine's own.
Coupled with Cristiano Ronaldo's ongoing nagging injuries and Real's lack of goals in preseason from other sources -- two from Bale, one from James -- it's fair to say Real needs a pick-me-up.
The visit of Córdoba to the Bernabéu on Monday night should provide exactly that. Newly promoted after 42 years in the footballing boondocks, Albert Ferrer's side is expected to do little more than play the role of fish in a barrel for Real's artillery. The number of bets on the weekly Quinigol predictor backing Real to pop three or more past Córdoba is predictably high.
Ferrer said in his prematch news conference that "Real Madrid can field two competitive teams" with the playing staff at the Bernabéu and hinted he would alter his usual game plan to try to stem the tide.
"You have to have a lot of patience and try to ensure they don't score an early goal," he said. "When we have the ball, we will try to control the game, play and not lose possession quickly. We will try to take the game into Real's half, although we know that's going to be difficult."
For Ancelotti, the match represents a chance to experiment with his formation; resting Ronaldo would not be a bad idea under the circumstances. The Italian may elect to switch to a 4-2-3-1 to see how Kroos and Modric manage in midfield, with Bale, Isco and James behind Benzema.
The France international has not scored in 15 matches stretching back to April, and he could do with getting off the mark early in La Liga; there is a week of the transfer window remaining, and checkbooks can be dusted off quickly at the Bernabéu, especially with Di Maria's fee safely in the piggy bank. Radamel Falcao's mobile will be charging all week.
Alternatively, Ancelotti could persist with a 4-3-3, with Modric playing slightly in front of Kroos and Alonso to provide the much-needed bridge from midfield to the front line, a task Isco can also fill if and when required.
Whatever the Real manager settles on for the Cordoba game, he has little time to find the magic formula. Defeat in a competition like the Super Cup, which carries a lot more importance in the press in Spain than it does in the stands or the board room, is not an issue. Ancelotti will be judged this season on Real's eventual league position. After a cushy opener, his side faces a testing trip to Real Sociedad.
As the Italian noted after the Super Cup, "The 2013-14 season has just ended." 2014-15 has already started, and he must ensure that there are no question marks over Real's title credentials before the inconvenience of the international break. First up after the restart are pesky Atletico.