The first Madrid Derby of the 2018-19 season will take place in Estonia. This is a chance for Atletico to make a Real statement to a Ronaldo-less Madristas. Nonetheless, the shadow of the Portuguese forward still hangs over the fierce rivalry. Los Blaconos still boast a potent squad with the likes of Gareth Bale, Isco, Asensio, Modric and others but none of them are at the level of their former teammate. History would tell us that Florentino Perez would have attempted to break the transfer record to replace Ronaldo. Instead, they’ve have had a quite offseason and have replaced Zinedine Zidane (whose surprising resignation came out of the blue) with Julen Lopetegui. The Spanish manager will look to rely on the already existing squad that is loaded with talented players and try to implement his own system. Their major signing of the summer came in the form of Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea. This puts Keylor Navas’ job in jeopardy. A team that was built around Ronaldo’s prowess comes against a robust Atletico side that won the Europa league and finished ahead of their city rivals in La Liga.
Los Colchoneros have made significant improvements to their squad – none more important than ensuring that Antoine Griezmann has committed his future of the club. They have added the likes of Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins, and Rodri to an already deep squad. They lost their captain in Gabi though the aging midfielder has been on his way out for some time. Atletico recently lost Kevin Gamerio, who has been a handy goal scoring option for Diego Simione. There has been a lot of bad blood between the two clubs. This is now exacerbated by the signing of Courtois with Los Blancos with the goalkeeper becoming a superstar during his lengthy loan spell with Atleti. Both teams would love to beat the other to bag their bragging rights over their city rivals as they both start kickoff the new La Liga season on Sunday.
This is a new era for the Madristas. Ronaldo has scored 450 goals in his 438 matches with the Galacticos, 44 of which came last season. The onus is now on Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Marco Asensio to step up and fill the void left by the Madeira native. Bale come on as a substitute during the Champions League final in May and he single handedly won Real Madrid their third straight European title with an emphatic brace. The Welshman had a rocky relationship with Zidane as he was marred with injuries and lengthy spells on the bench. He has since impressed in this past pre-season and will be looking to show Lopetegui that he is new alpha of the team. Benzema was primarily responsible for creating opportunities and holding up the ball for Ronaldo and will now look to shine as a consistent goal-scorer in the absence of the Portuguese international. The one position that is still up for grabs is between the sticks. Keylor Navas may be the best keeper in the world that nobody seems to want. Courtois is amongst the best in the world but will have to fight it out with the Costa Rican keeper to retain his status as a bona fide No. 1.
In this twenty games as the manager of the Spanish national team, Lopetegui never lost a game. He re-invented the way Spain approached games as he revitalized with possession-based game with a pinch of pace and finesse. He will look to implement this over Zidane’s favored counter-attacking style of play. He does not want his players to be static with the ball and play without intent. Lopetegui enjoys using a high press and direct attacking play. The Madrid fullbacks will relish playing under him given that he lets them run forward and play a major role in the final third. The Spaniard has also looked to shore up the Madrid back-four and build their possession from his defense. He has big shoes to fill given that Zizou nine titles in his two-and-half-years with the club.
Atletico have failed to upstage their city rivals in the biggest stage of club football – losing three times in the Champions League to Real Madrid (in the finals in ’14,’16 and the 17’ semifinals). Diego Simeone looks to change that this season. Their strengthened squad and their mental mantle are good enough to challenge any team in Europe. He has one of the best center back pairings in the world with Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. He also boasts one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Jan Oblak. Koke and Saul are excellent midfield talents who are capable of individual brilliance while also seamlessly fitting into Simeone’s defensive philosophy. A repeat of their previous failings in a European competition will not be acceptable for this season with the final being at their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Atletico have a favorable record against Real over the past few seasons having beaten them on several occasions in both the La Liga and Cope del Rey. They have also beaten the Los Blancos in the 2014 Spanish Super cup. However, a victory against Real in Europe is something that has evaded Simeone.
Potential Starting XIs
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Ramos (c), Varane, Marcelo; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric; Isco, Bale, Benzema
Navas is still likely to start given that Courtois is yet to fully assimilate with this new squad. And that Lopetegui will want to avoid putting him in the bloodbath that will be the Madrid Derby. It is still Navas’ spot to lose given both his age and his strained relationship with the Madrid fan base. Modric is also another questionable starting option given his extended summer given that he led Croatia to the World Cup Final.
Atletico Madrid (4-4-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Godin (c), Gimenez, Filipe Luiz; Koke, Partey, Saul, Lemar; Diego Costa, Griezmann.
Real Madrid 2 – 1 Atletico Madrid
Simeone is going to task his side to grind out the game. Both fixtures last season were low-scoring draws (0-0 and 1-1). Neither club will look to make sloppy decisions or mistakes and will try to figure out each other. Much like their Champions League Three-Peat, Real will look too make it three-on-the-trot with the Super Cup having previously beaten Sevilla and Manchester United. Real will see much of the ball as Atleti will let them dominate possession and sit back. All things said and done, Los Blancos simply have the attacking talent to break down own of the best defensive teams in Europe.