With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, it's time for someone else to step up as Real Madrid's leader
There is a fresh sense of hope in the air at preseason training sessions around the world. Nowhere could this be truer than at Real Madrid even if it is mixed with tinges of apprehension as to where their new era will lead them. There are new schemes and concepts being implemented by new manager Julen Lopetegui and there is a battle getting ready to commence for the alpha male role in the dressing room and on the field. Typically, at this stage of preseason, players not named Cristiano Ronaldo were positioning themselves to play the best supporting role they could for the upcoming season but now there is an open competition for the lead role.
"We're Real Madrid and we always want more," said Florentino Perez during the presentation of Alvaro Odriozola on Wednesday night. He promised "new, magnificent players" too as he eyes a potential flutter or two in the transfer market. But on Friday during the presentation of 18-year-old Vinicius Junior, he said these new players were already being presented -- Odriozola, a back-up right-back and Vinicius, a teenager who may or may not play with Madrid's reserves next season. Perez made a promise but he failed to define what he meant by "new, magnificent players" and it seems his own view of what that means has changed over the years.
Real Madrid have been in the throes of revolution masked as evolution for the last couple of years. Their focus has shifted to signing younger players and in Lopetegui, they have a more hands-on coach. This could mean they suffer when it comes to buying those superstar players we have come to expect at Real Madrid; the kind of statement signings that are demanded by fans regardless of necessity or utility.
You feel, for example, when Eden Hazard was saying how much he'd like to play under Zinedine Zidane that, provided the circumstances suited Real Madrid, all they needed to do was click their fingers and the Belgian would have been on the next flight from Stansted to Barajas. Lopetegui's job now is creating a collection of pieces into an unbroken whole without the help of arriving Galacticos.
Everything Real Madrid did in previous years was viewed through the lens of Ronaldo. Cast your memory back to the Juventus quarter-final first leg. Your involuntary memory doesn't throw Modric's calming presence at you, or Raphael Varane's defensive assuredness. It throws Ronaldo flying through the air and connecting with a chilena that had Zidane massaging his bald head in an effort to process what he had just witnessed. Or the second leg, when Ronaldo slammed home the penalty to win the tie in extra time. Or the final, when Ronaldo first intimated his desire to leave Real Madrid. But the Portuguese is gone and there is a whole lot of spotlight that needs someone to focus on.
For the first time in a very long time, there is a battle taking place during Real Madrid preseason training for that very spotlight. And with Vinicius, who said he wasn't going on loan this season, along with the inclusion of Raul de Tomas, Martin Odegaard and the assurances given to Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos that they were being counted on give it all a bit of a "Royal Rumble" sort of feeling. Everyone is starting off with the possibility that they can win Lopetegui's trust and earn meaningful playing time depending on their preseason performance.
There are, of course, favourites to assume the role. Isco, who knows Lopeteui's appointment is good news for him as he gave him "confidence when I haven't been enjoying a central role at my club", must be licking his lips at the thought of working every day with a manager who sees his true worth. Gareth Bale said he might have to leave but just like so many times during their concurrent spells at the club, Ronaldo beat him to the punch, jetting off to Turin before Bale had a chance to sit down and speak with Lopetegui. But Bale is presented with a chance now to do something that he might feel is a year or two overdue; taking over for Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
Not since before Raul's debut in 1994 have Real Madrid been searching for their hero. They have potential as mentioned with both Isco and Bale but it's unclear as to how Lopetegui wants to build his side. Zidane's era was marked with unparalleled class in the Champions League. But it was more about moments of magic than months of consistency. It was something that irked him too. He admitted on a number of occasions that the league was harder to win than the continental competition he won three times on the trot. And maybe Perez' desire is to prioritize consistency rather than banking the future on one mercurial talent.
Florentino Perez feels like he has done his due diligence by gathering players over the last number of years with an eye on eventually replacing Ronaldo. Over the coming month, there will be a wide open, survival of the fittest competition taking place within a squad that for the first time in a long time, is being rebuilt from the ground up.