REUTERS/ Ints Kalnins
It felt a million miles away. Well, 2,400 to be exact.
The Le Coq Arena in Tallinn was an apt venue for the beginning of an uncertain dynasty at Real Madrid, as Julen Lopetegui presided over a jet-lagged 4-2 defeat to Atletico in the European Super Cup.
Goals from Diego Costa, Saul and Koke were enough to overrun a distracted Merengues side, who already knew whose name would dominate the post-match autopsies.
A bloodless deposition
If this is life after Cristiano Ronaldo, then Madridistas don’t want to know it. There was a sense before the Portuguese’s £90 million move to Juventus that the time had been apt for a departure.
He was slowing at 33, less mobile and less potent, too, registering one of his lowest goal tally since arriving at the club in 2009. When his plane left for Turin, the Real hierarchy were lauded for what seemed like a bloodless deposition.
Yet Ronaldo has taken so much with him. The preening celebrity and outrageous brilliance that has characterised Real Madrid for the past decade; it’s all down to him. So are the titles. Replacing that is impossible, but strengthening this ageing squad isn’t.
Lopetegui needs a central defender. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane are arguably the most brilliant defensive partnership in world football, but the quality below them is vanishingly thin.
Nacho is a useful utility man, but neither he nor Jesus Vallejo are of the quality necessary to deputise for an extended period of time. There were high hopes for the latter after a promising loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt two seasons ago, but a shaky campaign last time out means he isn’t ready to step up.
Whilst Alvaro Odriozola offers sterling competition for Dani Carvajal on the right, the same cannot be said for Marcelo.
Unquestionably the most talented wing-back of his generation, the Brazilians’ telepathic relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo was one of Real’s most brutal weapons. Should he get injured, however, there is no readily identifable alternative for his place. That should be a worry for Lopetegui.
Mateo Kovacic’s departure to Chelsea speaks to the volume of the Spaniard’s midfield riches, though. There was no room for the Croatian in a trio that has provided consecutive Champions League triumphs.
Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are simply impregnable, even if the latter continues to be linked with a lucrative move away. Decent alternatives like Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos complete the picture as well as a talented young lad called Isco.
A most glaring weakness
The most glaring weakness is in the forward positions. Gareth Bale might have scored in two Champions League finals, but he still struggles to claim a definitive place in this team.
Similarly to Karim Benzema, he has laboured in Ronaldo’s shadow, but there is a chance now for him to establish the kind of hegemony that so enthralled Tottenham Hotspur.
Florentino Perez, however, has never been a man for delayed gratification. Real fans, then, should expect another headline-grabbing signing before the end of the transfer window.
Eden Hazard’s arrival might now be unlikely given Chelsea’s inability to secure a replacement, but that is the kind of stature and talent necessary to reinvigorate the Real machine. Bale, for all his undoubted ability, doesn’t have the boisterousness needed to front this megalithic corporate entity.
With just weeks remaining until the window closes, Lopetegui’s mission is clear. Succeed, and he’ll address the weaknesses of this crumbling team. Fail, and he could be out on his ear before Christmas.