Real Madrid begin La Liga defence surrounded by air of mystery | Sid Lowe

Real Madrid begin La Liga defence surrounded by air of mystery | Sid Lowe


eal Madrid beat Getafe 6-0 this week, or so it goes. The league champions’ only pre-season match was a ghost game: there was no one there to watch it, which is at least perfect preparation these days, but there were no television cameras and no report either, no lineups, no mention of it on the club’s Twitter and no glimpse of the goals – four of them scored by Karim Benzema. Sergio Ramos got a penalty, which you like to imagine was a Panenka, and Sergio Arribas hit the other. Or did he head it? Who knows? That is what the sports paper AS said, anyway, although they were understandably sketchy on the details.

Madrid treated it as a training session not to be shared. There is a photo of the captains, Ramos and David Timor, with the officials but, under the headline “the week’s second training session”, all the club’s website reveals is: “Some of the squad played a training match against Getafe in the Alfredo Di Stéfano. Another group of players worked in the gym and on pitches one and two.” And that’s pretty much that.

A previous friendly against Rayo Vallecano had already been cancelled because of Covid and so in the end everyone was denied the only chance to see Real Madrid before they begin the defence of their title at Real Sociedad on Sunday night, joining La Liga a week later than most but a week earlier than Barcelona, Sevilla, Athletic and Elche. Their impressive win over Getafe – if that’s what it was – was clandestine, which feels oddly appropriate after a summer when Madrid have gone unexpectedly unnoticed, almost hidden away with none of the normal noise.

All things are relative and maybe not even they could shout above the rolling thunder from Catalonia, but in the capital these have been unusually inactive days largely devoid even of rumour. There have been moves for Gareth Bale, James Rodríguez, Achraf Hakimi, Óscar Rodríguez, Brahim Díaz, Sergio Reguilón, Dani Ceballos and Kubo, possibly Luka Jovic too, almost an entire team’s worth of talent, but all are outbound moves and none had a significant role last season. There are just four low-key arrivals, all loan returnees. Of those, the only one that can be considered a probable starter is Martin Ødegaard – the outstanding midfielder in Spain until lockdown, heading back from Real Sociedad a year earlier than planned.

Otherwise, the faces will be familiar following a process of sporting consolidation and financial accumulation for Madrid, conscious of the impact of the coronavirus crisis and preparing for 2021, when they hope Kylian Mbappé comes on the market. It’s not just that Madrid have not bought anyone; it is that from the start they were clear that they would not, almost all the talk silenced before it had even begun, however hard some tried. There has also been no tour, and not much time. “It’s been different, much shorter, but it’s been intense and the team is in good condition,” Thibaut Courtois said.

Martin Ødegaard has returned after a successful loan at Real Sociedad

Madrid’s income this season is projected to be closer to €650m (£596m) than the €822m they had planned for last season. That target was not met, incomes dropping by an estimated 15%, but Madrid did turn a small €320,000 profit by imposing 10% pay cuts and completing transfers out. Those deals have resulted in a saving on salaries and raised almost €100m on sales – although that figure is cast into considerable doubt by the claim of Rodríguez’s former club Banfield, entitled to a proportion of any fee, that far from paying €25m for the Colombian, Everton got him for free.

Maybe, then, no one needed the Getafe game to predict what Madrid will look like this season, and not just because Ødegaard, Mariano, Jovic, Lucas Vázquez, Marco Asensio and Isco didn’t play. On the face of it, the answer is obvious: like last season. And they are the champions, after all.

It shouldn’t look exactly the same though, even with Zinedine Zidane still in charge, seeking to become the first Madrid manager to win back-to-back titles in almost 30 years. Last season the revolution was cancelled.

Even the transition didn’t take place, a generational shift put on hold then that must be restarted now. Luka Modric is 35, Ramos is 34, Marcelo and Benzema are 32, Kroos 30.

Of those that played important roles, only Ferland Mendy, 25, and Fede Valverde, 22, had not been there the previous season and in the case of the Uruguayan, so important in the opening six months, he slipped from the side after lockdown.

Valverde may anticipate greater continuity, and a role must be found for Ødegaard, who has been convinced to come back. Greater responsibility and roles may also be handed to Rodrygo, 19, and Vinícius, who is 20. A year on, it is not a stretch to expect them to be better. Borja Mayoral has returned from loan at Levante and could climb ahead of Mariano and Jovic, for whom Madrid seek a buyer. They will need more goals from somewhere: 22 players scored last season, helping to disguise their reliance on Benzema, but their second top marksman was Ramos. That can’t continue.

Which is where Eden Hazard comes in, or at least that’s what they hope. Not just at Madrid but at the league, clinging to the star quality he has but is yet to show. Madrid’s first galáctico since Rodríguez, Hazard arrived five kilos overweight, suffered an ankle injury, played just 16 league games in his debut season – at a cost of €10m per match – and scored only once. Rather less was said than it might have done, Madrid winning the league anyway, but that can’t last.

And yet, with Hazard still not ready or at his ideal weight, Roberto Martínez was unable to field the player during the international break. “He’s 100% medically but a returning player needs 60 sessions,” the Belgium coach said but he hasn’t had any with his Madrid teammates, not even the ghost game with Getafe.

“I will be judged on my second season; it’s up to me to be in shape,” Hazard said during quarantine. On Sunday night, his Real Madrid teammates emerge from the quiet and step back into the spotlight to start that season without him.