‘Calm’ Real Madrid suffer squad headaches

After three years of Jose Mourinho provoking a reaction from anyone he could during his time at Real Madrid, a relative calm has descended over the club in recent months since Carlo Ancelotti took charge.

'Calm' Real Madrid suffer squad headaches
Real Madrid's new Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti (L) and his French assistant, club legend French Zinedine Zidane. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

The easy-going Italian's approach has so far been happily received by both the local press pack and the club's star-studded squad.

While off the field the presence of Gareth Bale and the possibility of club president Florentino Perez paying another world record transfer fee looms, on the field Madrid have been going about their business in the best way possible.

Seven pre-season friendlies have brought six wins and one draw, with the defeats of Mourinho's new side Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan particularly impressive.

However, the scorched earth policy adopted by Mourinho in his final days at the club and Perez's dealings in the transfer market still leave Ancelotti with a number of difficult decisions as Real's season gets up and running over the next few weeks.

Although Perez's forward thinking strategy in tying up two of the pearls from Spain's victory in the U-21 European Championships in Isco and Asier Illarramendi has been widely approved, it is questionable whether either player will be a regular starter.

Real splashed out €69 million euros ($92 million, £59.3 million) on the pair but they face stiff competition from the likes of Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso for a place in their respective prefered positions.

Moreover, whilst Perez seems intent on landing Bale, the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli has left the nine-time European champions uncharacteristically undermanned when it comes to strikers with only Karim Benzema and 20-year-old Alvaro Morata left to lead the line.

With that relative shortage in mind and the possible arrival of Bale who has predominantly excelled for Tottenham Hotspur in the same position that Cristiano Ronaldo has played over the past four seasons, Ancelotti has toyed with the Portuguese as a central striker in pre-season.

Ronaldo has though in the past stated his displeasure at being used in that role, particularly with his national side, and at a critical stage in Real's attempts to get the 28-year-old to sign a new contract, it is highly unlikely any pressure will be put on the former world player of the year to play in a position he appears to dislike.

Ancelotti also has big calls to make at the back. Mourinho's most public spat in his last six months at the club was with captain and Spain 'keeper Iker Casillas, whom he dropped after signing Diego Lopez in January.

Despite the public outcry at the treatment handed out to Casillas, it was hard to argue that Lopez didn't deserve his place in the side after a string of stunning performances towards the end of the season.

Ancelotti now has to decide whether to reinstate Casillas as the number one and could be left in the unenviable position of dropping a club legend should he fail to recover his form of old.

In defence, Pepe's public outburst at Mourinho for having a lack of respect for Casillas swiftly saw the Portuguese expelled from the squad towards the end of the season with Mourinho claiming Pepe's real problem was having been dropped in favour of 20-year-old Raphael Varane.

The Portuguese looks set to start in the first few weeks of the season as Varane continues to recover from a knee injury, but the 30-year-old's patience may be tried once more if he again drops behind the Frenchman and Sergio Ramos in the pecking order.

And there is even a difficult decision for Ancelotti at right-back as Alvaro Arbeloa, one of the few players to publicly defend Mourinho, is likely to see his place in the side come under threat from Dani Carvajal, who has returned to Madrid after the club took up their option to buy-back the 21-year-old from Bayer Leverkusen.

Until now Ancelotti's charm has ensured a gentle ride, but the hard work and pressure for Madrid to make amends for a trophyless campaign last season begins in earnest when they host Real Betis on Sunday..

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Black Lives Matter: Marcelo ‘takes the knee’ to celebrate Real Madrid win

Marcelo celebrated by taking a knee as Real Madrid returned from three months away following the coronavirus suspension by beating Eibar 3-1 on Sunday.

Black Lives Matter: Marcelo 'takes the knee' to celebrate Real Madrid win
Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo kneels on the field to celebrate his goal. Photo: AFP

After scoring Madrid's third goal in the 37th minute, Marcelo dropped onto his left knee and raised his clinched right fist into the air, apparently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Madrid's win may have come at a cost as Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos were both substituted early in the second half and were seen with ice packs strapped to them while sitting in the stands.

Hazard was making his first start since February and his ice pack appeared to be around his troublesome right ankle, which he injured in November and February, before undergoing surgery in March.

“We knew Eden would lack a bit of rhythm playing the whole game,” coach Zinedine Zidane said.

“He played well for an hour, he took a knock which was a scare but at half-time he said he was fine. He is happy with what he has done and we are happy with him.”

Madrid's win means they reduce the gap behind league leaders Barcelona back to two points after the Catalans thrashed Real Mallorca 4-0 on Saturday.    

Madrid struck in the fourth minute after a superb strike from Toni Kroos before Ramos tucked away Hazard's pass on the counter-attack.    

Eibar pulled one back in the second half through Pedro Bigas but never found the second to make Madrid nervous, despite a brief spell of pressure.    

Before going off, Hazard was busy, the Belgian involved in all three goals.    

His weaving run through midfield led to Kroos' shot and it was his effort that was cleared out to Marcelo, who drove into the corner.    

After a miserable opening season in Spain, it was a bright start for Hazard, who could now redeem himself by playing a crucial role in the run-in, if he can stay injury-free.

Perhaps even more impressive though was Karim Benzema, who linked up brilliantly with Hazard and was unfortunate not to get the goal an excellent all-round performance deserved.

Gareth Bale started on the bench but came on and could start against Valencia on Thursday.

Zidane is likely to rotate heavily over the next few weeks, with the games coming thick and fast.

New surroundings

Madrid's coach will also have been pleased to get off to a positive start in their new training ground home, which was the 100th different stadium to be used in La Liga.

They will be playing all their remaining home matches at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium to allow renovation work at the Santiago Bernabeu to continue this summer.

“We know the situation, it's all a bit strange,” said Zidane. “But the players are all champions and we have to get our heads around it.”    

Barca had needed less than two minutes to score against Mallorca and Madrid were only slightly later, as Hazard broke through Eibar's midfield and Casemiro set Benzema free.

The ball was cleared to Kroos on the edge of the area, who struck first time, sidefooting perfectly into the far top right-hand corner.   

Ramos doubled their advantage after starting, and finishing, a ruthless counter-attack. In between, Benzema and Hazard were involved again, the former picking out the latter, who generously gave Ramos an open goal.

Marcelo put Eibar all but out of sight before half-time as Benzema played through for Hazard and his shot spilled out to Marcelo to lash into the corner.

Eibar were better after the break as Edu Exposito forced a full-stretch save from Thibaut Courtois and then Sergi Enrich headed against the crossbar. 

Bigas did score after diverting in Pedro Leon's shot but Madrid held on.    

Earlier, Diego Costa scored his first goal since October but Atletico Madrid missed the chance to move into La Liga's top four by drawing 1-1 away at Athletic Bilbao.

Costa celebrated by holding up the shirt of Virgina Torrecilla, a player from Atletico's women's team, who underwent surgery on a brain tumour last month.

His equaliser came two minutes after the excellent Iker Muniain had given Bilbao the lead towards the end of the first half and neither side could find a winner at the empty San Mames, with Atletico defender Santiago Arias missing the best chance late on.

Diego Simeone's side stay sixth, level on points with Getafe and one behind Real Sociedad, who were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Osasuna.