Real Madrid: 2013-14 Player-by-Player Guide
There is a new manager. There are new players. There is even a new shirt sponsor.
However, Real Madrid being Real Madrid, there are almost certainly going to be new dramas, new spats, new sagas and new ways to make the front pages of the insatiable Spanish footballing press. And that is why the club is so much fun to watch.
Carlo Ancelotti, for one, will be hoping it is sport rather than sensationalism that leads the way into the season to come after a somewhat eventful three years under Jose Mourinho. This is the squad that the Italian boss will use to achieve his goal of a quiet but successful campaign to come for Real Madrid.
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas
In the goalkeeper's 14th season in the Real Madrid first team, Iker Casillas may not have everything going his own way.
Indeed, that would be a continuation of the narrative of the latter half of last year when Jose Mourinho parked the club captain on the bench, preferring Diego Lopez between the sticks instead. To be fair, that was probably all part of the Portuguese provoker's "please sack me" strategy.
Previously "Saint Iker" has only had veterans such as Jerzy Dudek to challenge him or wide-eyed, youth-team players, happy just to be sitting on the Santiago Bernabeu bench.
2013-14 sees the very hungry, very ambitious and also very good Lopez keeping Casillas on his tippy-toes. This is perhaps the best thing for the Spain captain whose performances can drop a touch when snuggly wrapped in an untouchable comfort zone.
Goalkeeper: Diego Lopez
Diego Lopez is the keeper who will give Casillas goosebumps of terror over the next year and ensure it is all stern-faced seriousness on the training ground in the upcoming campaign—and probably a few goalkeeping gloves with suspicious smells, too.
Lopez has chosen to stay on at Real Madrid, despite the almost certain possibility of a move that would give him a starting gig after excelling for los Blancos last year.
It remains to be seen how long the patience of the goalkeeper will last, though, if Casillas remains the top dog at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Centre-Back: Sergio Ramos
The freshly-bleached stopper still divides opinion in the world of football. Supporters say Ramos is an athlete extraordinaire, a fearless defender, the epitome of the modern footballer and a truly inspirational leader.
Table-thumping detractors will argue until blue in the face that the Andalusian action man is a clumsy brute of a footballer, with the attention span of a gnat who should be sent off a lot more times than Ramos already has.
The debate will continue for yet another year at Real Madrid.
Centre-Back: Raphael Varane
The breakout star for Real Madrid of last season had a quiet summer recovering from a knee injury after a spectacular last campaign.
The unassuming young Frenchman become one of the most promising defenders on the planet after excelling in keeping the likes of the entire Barcelona forward line in his pocket.
The challenge now for Varane is to keep on keeping on and not allow what will be ever-increasing attention and acclaim to take root and stunt the stopper's impressive progress.
A curious campaign lies ahead for Pepe who is trying to shatter a reputation as a mauler and more than a little mad.
Mourinho's departure should help with this rebranding no end—the former coach was the one most responsible for tapping into Pepe's inner Hulk and exploiting it to his fullest. There was always the feeling that Mourinho had strapped Pepe in front of a TV screen with eyes taped open, watching slasher films.
The Portuguese defender had a quiet, composed preseason and will hope this air of tranquillity continues for the next 10 months.
Right-Back: Alvaro Arbeloa
The full-back was known previously for his reliability and dependability but is another, like Pepe, who lost ground in the sanity stakes under Mourinho.
Instead, Arbeloa became a liability for the team and is going to have to work hard to regain his former status in what will be a huge year for both club and country.
It is quite likely Arbeloa will starting this challenge from the bench, though, as Dani Carvajal is going to put up an almighty fight for the former Liverpool man's spot for both Real Madrid and Spain. Carvajal is probably going to win it.
An awful lot of Real Madrid's second-string players pop into the first-team squad during an injury crisis, cup games or dead rubbers in La Liga.
An awful lot then pop out again and end up at Getafe. Just look at what happened to Miguel Torres and Pablo Sarabia.
Nacho looks like a stayer, however, in part due to the 23-year-old's flexibility—he can play centre-back and on the flanks, too. The sale of Raul Albiol and departure of Ricardo Carvalho without a replacement being brought in suggests Nacho is going to be a bit of a regular this year.
Right-Back: Dani Carvajal
The full-back played the most minutes for Real Madrid during preseason—due to Arbeloa's absence, to be fair—but during that time, Carvajal showed he is more than ready to take up the right-back berth for Real Madrid.
Immensely quick and energetic going forward, Carvajal would add some much-needed width to Ancelotti's attack. However, being more than a little on the small side may make him a bit of a liability at the back against more physical opposition.
Left-Back: Fabio Coentrao
If there is one footballer who might be seen as surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and sold off before the end of transfer window, it is Fabio Coentrao.
In the Spanish capital, the full-back is seen as just fine but overpriced for what the Portuguese defender can offer—and that is not as much as Marcelo.
Should Coentrao be moved on for a handy, hefty fee then Ancelotti would still have Arbeloa and Denis as cover for the Brazilian who is going to start as first choice.
In previous seasons, Marcelo was always one of those footballers at Real Madrid who could be named as the most improved. The progression of the defender had a pleasing arc to it.
However, last year the Brazilian defender managed to break his foot and took a very long time indeed to recover.
The positive point, though, was that Marcelo's absence gave Madrid supporters a reminder of how useful he is to the team—a threat going forward and increasingly solid and dependable at the back.
Left-Back: Denis Cheryshev
The young Russian international normally plays as an out-and-out winger but Carlo Ancelotti has given the 22-year-old a run-out at left-back in preseason.
The experiment has been a fairly successful one with the former Castilla player adding a nice balance to the team with the byline-busting Dani Carvajal on the right.
There is a chance Denis may move on loan somewhere, though, with the footballer looking for minutes rather than being a benchwarmer in Madrid.
Midfielder: Xabi Alonso
Is this the beginning of the end for Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid?
Age and an intense period of activity for his club and Spain must have sapped the midfielder's powers, while young bucks are already in place to take over the centre of the park in the form of Luka Modric and Asier Illarramendi.
Indeed, even Ancelotti's tactics seem to prefer the shorter pass up the pitch, compared to Alonso's speciality—the long punt out to the wing—and that may work against the Basque midfielder. Xabi Alonso may start the season as the first choice to run the show for Madrid but the campaign may not end up the same way.
Midfielder: Sami Khedira
The German midfielder's starting position for Real Madrid looks a fairly safe one, as there are few players in the squad with his particular profile.
If Ancelotti is going to play with a three-man midfield featuring Alonso and Isco, then someone is going to have to hustle and bustle and help out the back four.
Sami Khedira is the man for that role, although it does seem a shame that the former Stuttgart player may not get too many chances to play further up the field and show off his party trick, the late burst into the box.
There is the sneaking suspicion that the big move from Real Sociedad to Real Madrid was not the right one for the young midfielder.
Then again, Illarra may not have had too much choice in the matter due to the Santiago Bernabeu outfit buying out his contract.
Illarra has struggled to keep up with the pace in preseason and is behind Xabi Alonso and Isco in the queue to run Madrid's midfield. A frustrating campaign may be on the horizon.
The former Malaga man has taken like a duck to a huge, weed-filled expanse of water during the preseason at Real Madrid.
Isco has shown the ability to squeeze into the central midfield area, play up front, on the wings and even get stuck into some defending when required.
This flexibility is going to be crucial for one of the most promising players in La Liga if Isco is going to get regular football this season and break into Spain's World Cup squad for Brazil.
Although the former Sao Paolo midfielder has had a surprisingly good preseason, the player only got a game due to the absence of Illarra and Xabi Alonso.
However, that is not to take anything away from the promoted Castilla player who looks to offer a great deal of versatility and physicality to the Madrid midfield.
Nevertheless, with the pecking order in Ancelotti's side being an especially competitive one in the middle of the park, a good option for Casemiro might well be to go out on loan for a year. Unless the Italian boss sees the Brazilian as a understudy for Khedira, that is. If so, then the 21-year-old should probably hang about at the Bernabeu a bit longer.
Midfielder: Luka Modric
A very protracted transfer saga with Spurs last summer (repeated this year with Gareth Bale) saw Modric missing preseason and taking a very long time to get into the swing of life in La Liga.
Once the Croatian had convinced everyone in Spain that he was not a bit like Mesut Ozil and had been given a good run of games, the playmaker showed what a handy, little addition to the squad he was.
Modric faces another fight with Xabi Alonso to start for Madrid this season, as well as having to beat off the challenge of the newly-arrived and very expensive Illarra. The chances are that 'Lucky Luka' will win both contests.
By unofficial statistics, this is rebirth No. 87 for the Brazilian who is still trying to work off the €65 million fee Madrid paid for his services back in 2009.
Every time Kaka has a decent game, everyone gets very thrilled at the idea of the player discovering the form of old. That may never happen but Kaka is still an immensely popular figure, mostly because the Madrid player is a proper gent.
The latest hopes for another resurrection hang on the fact that one of the player's mentors, Carlo Ancelotti, is looking out for him. There is also the possibility that Kaka could be reinvented as a false No. 9, a move that has been hinted at in preseason.
Midfielder: Angel Di Maria
Another one of the Real Madrid squad who no doubt looked at the Isco signing and thought "oh bum, this could be curtains for me."
If there is one player set to be sacrificed from the starting 11 to make room for the incoming Malaga man, it is Angel di Maria.
However, some sprightly moments in preseason have given the manager a reminder that the Argentinean wide man is still capable of the spectacular and is handy to have on the bench when a bit of width is required on either flank.
Forward: Mesut Ozil
When Isco was signed, the initial fears were that Mesut Ozil was going to suffer the worst punishment possible for the German—being shifted out to the wing, like a rubbish old armchair.
The playmaker is entitled to heave a huge sigh of relief because it appears that he is going to carry on doing what he does best. And that entails bobbing about in the hole behind the forward-of-the-day, selflessly racking up assists for his teammates and getting a warm glow in his cockles in the process.
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
The one addition to Cristiano Ronaldo's game from last season seems to be a big cheesy grin.
The Portuguese forward seems to be enjoying his football again after a final campaign under Mourinho that seemed a chore rather than something to cheer. Ronaldo has had his most prolific preseason at Madrid with six goals and another 40 or 50 more in the new campaign seem more than possible for a footballer at the peak of his career.
Forward: Karim Benzema
With no Gonzalo Higuain around to mess with his mojo, this really is a critical season for Karim Benzema who needs to knock in a good 30 or so league goals to justify the faith paid in him by supporters.
The problem with the Frenchman has always been temperament rather than ability, so knowing that he will be starting every match barring fitness, suspension or being wholly hopeless should spur Benzema on to perform as everyone knows he can.
Forward: Alvaro Morata
Like Karim Benzema, Alvaro Morata is a footballer who will also benefit hugely from the departure of Gonzalo Higuain.
The former youth teamer is a striker of great ability and able to play across a front three as well, one of the reasons why Morata was so rated and trusted by Jose Mourinho.
The Madrid striker is still just a wee 20-year-old, with a good seven or eight years on the current crop of Spanish international strikers. Morata will one day be replacing them, given enough playing time for Real Madrid.
Forward: Jese Rodriguez
The former big fish in the small pond of Castilla is now a little fish in the...er...big pond of Real Madrid's first team.
Jese is a big talent but with a big attitude that may not take well to being on the bench week after week, or even keeping the reserve, reserve goalkeeper company in the stands. Jese is clearly a player of immense promise but is another who may well benefit from a year or two away from the Santiago Bernabeu to ensure a regular dose of football.