Post-Ronaldo Real Madrid gets 1st test in UEFA Super Cup
TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo is still hanging over Real Madrid as the team prepares to face fierce rival Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup final on Wednesday.
Captain Sergio Ramos, though, has no doubt that the club can deal with the departure of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, who joined Juventus in a 112-million euro ($131-million) deal after the World Cup.
"We've lost a very important and influential player, but that doesn't mean we're going to stop winning," he said. "Other big players at Real Madrid have come and gone. The club rises above all of its players, including symbolic ones like him. Hopefully things go well for him and for us too."
So far, Madrid hasn't resorted to a "galacticos" spending spree to replace Ronaldo, whose transfer followed coach Zinedine Zidane's surprising resignation after he led Madrid to a third consecutive Champions League title.
Zidane's replacement, Julen Lopetegui, seems to be relying on the talent already at his disposal and a new tactical system. The major summer signing has been goalkeeper Thibault Courtois from Chelsea.
Now, the team that was built around Ronaldo comes up against a strong Atletico team that won the Europa League and finished ahead of Madrid in the Spanish league.
Here are a few things to watch out for in Wednesday's match in Tallinn:
The big changes at Madrid have given new impetus to forwards Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio to step up and fill the void left by Ronaldo, who scored 450 goals in 438 matches for Madrid.
Bale, who came on as a substitute and scored two goals in Madrid's 3-1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League final in May, has more to prove than anyone in the team. He had a rocky relationship with Zidane and spent much of his time on the bench under the Frenchman last season.
But Bale has impressed in the pre-season and he will look to prove to Lopetegui that he's not just a Ronaldo understudy. It looks like he's done just that, with the new coach speaking of the Welshman in glowing terms.
"He is a super professional who is training with the eagerness of a youth," Lopetegui said. "We are convinced that he will have a great season."
Benezema, whose main function was to create opportunities for Ronaldo, will also look to shine now that the Portugal international is gone.
One position that is definitely up for grabs is goalkeeper. With Courtois' arrival, Keylor Navas will fight to retain his No. 1 shirt.
Lopetegui, who was fired as Spain coach two days before the national team's World Cup campaign began, likes to play possession-based soccer rather than the counter-attacking style favored by Zidane.
That doesn't mean he wants his players to be static with the ball. In pre-season matches, Lopetegui has encouraged his team to press opponents and be direct. His players are attack-minded and he likes to push his fullbacks high up the field to give the team width.
Lopetegui has been working to shore up Madrid's defense and build possession from the back.
On top of all that, he has big shoes to fill.
Zidane "did extraordinary work with incredible success, but that's the past," Lopetegui said. "We're not going to look back, but look ahead with confidence and hard work to consolidate those successes."
Atletico has failed against Madrid on European soccer's biggest stage in recent times, losing Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, and a semifinal in 2017.
But coach Diego Simeone believes that could all change this year. The team has brought in new players like attacking midfielder Thomas Lemar from Monaco, while holding onto key ones like World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann, who signed a new contract despite interest from other teams.
"The players want to come and the youngsters don't want to leave," Simeone said in Tallinn.
The Argentine coach declined to answer a question about what Ronaldo's departure means for Madrid, but Koke said it would still be a tough match on Wednesday.
"Cristiano is a great player. He's always demonstrated that, but Real Madrid has a great squad. With or without Cristiano, it was always going to be a complicated match."