HELSINKI, Finland — As Real Madrid begin their quest to win six trophies in a single season, it’s remarkable how serene and untroubled their panorama is compared to the turbulence facing almost every domestic and European rival. Their daunting challenge begins with the UEFA Supercup here in Helsinki, against Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt, takes flight with the first LaLiga game (at newly-promoted Almeria this weekend) and marches onward through the Champions League, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercopa and the FIFA World Club Championship, the journey finally ending next June.
Oh, and there’s the “small” matter of a World Cup for most of Los Blancos‘ players neatly tucked in during November and December.
But the minimum one can ask before a ball is kicked in anger is for the club, squad, first team and staff to be in a state of harmony, hunger and happiness. So it has been. There have been departures (Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Luka Jovic, Isco), but not a single important player has left the squad that conquered Spain and Europe last season. Two important, intelligent and potentially impactful signings have been added in Aurelien Tchouameni (a first-choice central midfielder for world champions France) and, as a free agent, Antonio Rudiger, a ferociously competitive defender who is in the habit of winning things for club and country.
This bucolic vista for their club will appear still more attractive to Madrid and Madridistas alike as soon as they take a lateral view at their competitors at home and around Europe.
Domestically, Barcelona are potentially more thorny rivals than last year. But they are engaged in a draining, humiliating, tooth-and-nail battle simply to register their new signings with LaLiga. If they manage it, then game on. Otherwise? Advantage Madrid. However, other Spanish clubs like Sevilla, Real Betis, Villarreal and Atletico Madrid haven’t been able to significantly strengthen squads that fell short of Madrid’s demanding standards last year.
In England, Chelsea are markedly weaker both in first team and overall squad. Moreover, under new ownership for the first time in two decades, they are emitting the pungent aroma of turmoil. No comparison with Los Blancos this summer.
Liverpool roll on, still formidable and still ambitious, but they didn’t want to lose Sadio Mane, and while Darwin Nunez has notable qualities, this will be a season of huge learning and adaptation for him. Yet Carlo Ancelotti doesn’t have to cope with either of these factors.
Manchester City, admittedly, now have Erling Haaland up front, plus the exciting Julian Alvarez, and as a result, they’ll often pulverise rivals. But Chelsea beat them in the market to acquire their preferred left-back (Marc Cucurella), while the departures of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko will be felt and Bernardo Silva patently wants to leave for Barcelona as well. Turbulence.
Tottenham Hotspur, arguably, have had the least disruptive summer of England’s top four — but are they really in shape to topple the European champions? Meanwhile, no Serie A winner has proven to be a serious Champions League rival for Madrid in recent years, and none of Italy’s brand-name clubs have managed to strengthen to a threatening degree this summer.
Bayern Munich are Bayern Munich. They’re proud, well-structured, well-coached and dangerous, if underestimated, but they proved how much they feared losing Robert Lewandowski given how ferociously they tried, and failed, to hang on to him. Across a long season, they’ll suffer for his absence.
Frankfurt, Wednesday’s opponents in the UEFA Super Cup that Ancelotti has made it utterly clear he’s determined to win, have kissed goodbye to their totemic spiritual leader, fan favourite Martin Hinteregger, are under serious pressure from Juventus to let their standout Serbian winger Filip Kostic switch clubs, and they were thumped 6-1 at home by Bayern last weekend (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.). None of these are degradations Madrid have had to suffer.
Which, in terms of serious rivals, leaves Paris Saint-Germain.
The French champions sacked another coach — which is a little like pointing out that September follows August — plus their director of football. As such, there’s a great deal of “getting to know you” happening this summer at a club whose three super-strikers (Neymar, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe) are all going to be far more focused on winning the World Cup than either Ligue 1 or the Champions League.
However, and this is the only real blot on Madrid’s horizon, PSG still boast the absolute phenomenon that is Mbappe. OK, his goals at Parc des Princes and the Bernabeu weren’t enough for PSG to eliminate Madrid from the Champions League last season, but this is a guy who everyone from Madrid president Florentino Perez, through Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and, most importantly, Ancelotti, categorically expected to be playing in the world-famous white shirt and helping to fuel an historic back-to-back double of LaLiga and Champions League titles this season.
Modric recently argued the situation in the Croatian media. “Mbappe had every right to take his decision, but now he’s got to live with his choice. All of us thought he was coming to Madrid, but finally, it wasn’t that way. So, now what? We can’t hang him out to dry for it! He’s a great player, but I always say: nobody is more important than the club. Madrid is above anyone and everyone else.”
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Please don’t be confused about what this signifies. It isn’t that Madrid will be down in the dumps, lacking in self-confidence or feeling embarrassed by Mbappe’s high-profile and drawn-out decision to stay in Paris rather than move, for free, to the European champions. No chance. But his absence, nevertheless, can be a massive factor in how Ancelotti’s squad cope with the holy grail — only Barca and Bayern have achieved it — of a potential six-trophy campaign.
Mbappe wouldn’t simply have been a “galactico” signing, the best player in the world joining Madrid in order to add sheen and shimmer in worldwide marketing, or to add millions of “followers” to whom the club could flog merchandise. No: we’re talking about an enormously gifted 23-year-old, yet to reach the prime of his career, who is contributing far better than a goal per game in Ligue 1 and Champions League (combining goals and assists). That’s 252 goals or assists in 236 matches (one every 84 minutes). Incredible.
Yet Madrid have done absolutely nothing to try to replace the enormous goal-scoring boost they’d spent the past three years plotting for, saving for and planning to unleash. Unless they have a transfer market “ace” up their sleeves, then how Mbappe’s decision impacts what Ancelotti and staff were planning, strategically, will be fascinating.
It’s about how Madrid react.
The Italian has, in fact, stated that the “squad is finalised.” We shall see, but it does mean that if Los Blancos are going to emulate, or exceed, last season’s heroics, then they’ll be ultra-dependent on four factors: Benzema, Vinicius, Rodrygo and the overwhelming competitive attitude that made them Spanish and European champions.
Modric continued: “When you play for this club, then after every single trophy you’re immediately thinking ‘how do we win the next one?’ During the celebrations in Paris, every one of us began to talk about how ‘from tomorrow,’ we were all starting work on winning our 15th Champions League, as if that were something ‘normal.’ But that’s not an attitude you can adopt: it has to be in your DNA.”
Lucas Vazquez told Diario AS something similar last month. “Our secret is our Madrid mentality. We never surrender, we’re never beaten until the final whistle, we all pull together no matter what. We all know that whatever we face, we can turn it around in an instant. It sounds cliched, but it’s what we do.”
Last season Benzema, who turns 35 in December, scored 50 goals between club and country. What’s more, he was the “Eureka!” player for Madrid. When it was needed he produced footballing genius. Vinicius became crucial, not just creative, and Rodrygo finished the season producing so much magic that he felt able not only to complain to Ancelotti for benching him against Liverpool, but to repeat the anecdote to the Brazilian media.
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Lucas Vazquez believes that Benzema (34) and Modric (36), represent a seismic change in elite football.
“They are examples not just for Madrid, but worldwide. They run as much or more than anyone else in our games. Who could have imagined Luka running our midfield at 36, playing better football now than when he arrived from Spurs? Who’d have predicted Karim being LaLiga ‘Pichichi,’ that he’d be scoring 44 club goals aged 34 and, also, playing better football now than when he was 29?”
There’s the Antonio Pintus effect to calibrate, too. The 59-year-old Italian is renowned for the beastly pressure he puts on the players’ fitness work. But look: no other team in Europe’s top leagues scored more late goals (defined as the last 15 minutes of a match) than Madrid. Given their age profile, that’s amazing.
So, the whole process, minus Mbappe and the emphatic advantage he could have given them, minus anyone signed to replace what Madrid had been counting on acquiring, starts again.
I’ll give Lucas the final word. “From the moment we began preseason, it’s been in our heads: ‘Win the UEFA Super Cup, win LaLiga, win the Champions League, win the Spanish Supercup, win the Copa del Rey, win the World Club Cup. Win the lot!'”