Early games will test Real's resolve
Preseason friendlies are useful for managers to examine any flaws in their side, but it is always dangerous to put too much emphasis on results. Manchester United won all six of their warm-up matches -- including 3-1 wins over Real Madrid and Liverpool and a 7-0 thumping of the L.A. Galaxy -- only to lose to Swansea in Louis van Gaal's debut on the Old Trafford bench.
The Dutchman described the defeat as having the potential to "smash" his players' confidence. It was the Swans' first-ever league victory over United in Manchester and condemned Van Gaal to the ignominy of overseeing a first opening-day home loss in 42 seasons. As he drily noted, "It doesn't get much worse."
Real Madrid's preseason has been peppered with defeats, the latest Saturday's 2-1 loss to Fiorentina, but when it mattered, Carlo Ancelotti's side found the form to see off a significantly weakened Sevilla 2-0 in the Super Cup final in Cardiff, Wales.
When Unai Emery had his full 2013-14 complement on hand in the league in March, however, Sevilla won 2-1 with Real chasing the Liga title. Despite the euphoria, not too much ought to be read into last week's result either.
It will be a while before Ancelotti's Real finds their feet this season, and an inaugural Liga fixture against newly promoted Cordoba is as kind possible to the Italian. However, a Spanish Super Cup doubleheader against Atletico will be a much more accurate gauge of where Real stands.
After Cordoba, an away trip to Anoeta and then the visit of Atletico leave little time for Ancelotti to settle on his formation and preferred formula; the preseason has, if anything, posed more questions than answers at the Bernabeu.
Ancelotti, entering his second season at Real, said before the Fiorentina match that, as far as he was concerned, the club's transfer business is done and dusted. Whether this was purely smoke and mirrors or a genuine statement of intent on the Italian's behalf, it displays a remarkable lack of knowledge of the machinations of the Bernabeu.
Placido Domingo's version of Real's hymn will belt out of the speakers when the league starts against Cordoba, but not until the fat lady reaches for the transfer window will any player in Madrid, or Europe, be safe. Barcelona manager Luis Enrique informed reporters on Sunday that it's business as usual until Sept. 1, and it is a line Ancelotti should adopt as the panic buys and bargains begin to fly off the shelves.
Despite Ancelotti's pursuit last season of on-field equilibrium, Real hardly has a settled starting XI or a particularly balanced squad going into the new campaign. The Italian pointedly stated that Xabi Alonso, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric can operate as a midfield unit in the pre-Fiorentina news conference, adding that Sami Khedira and Angel di Maria remain Real Madrid players. He might have made a mental addendum: at least for now.
The expensive capture of James Rodriguez smacks a little of tit-for-tat after Barcelona signed Luis Suarez, but there is little scope of the Colombian becoming overly familiar with the bench; Kaka is the most obvious precedent in recent seasons, but the Brazilian's Real career was hampered by injury and Jose Mourinho, in no particular order. It will take a real show of authority for Ancelotti to omit the World Cup top scorer if he is fit.
All of this presents the Italian with a delicate juggling act in midfield. Last season, Di Maria was expected to be the fall guy when Isco arrived with great fanfare and some sumptuous early-season performances to justify it. But the Argentine eventually nailed down a place on the left of midfield after the Malagueno's form dipped. Given his eventual worth to the team last season and performance against Fiorentina, there are few reasons to drop the winger, other than Florentino Perez's grand design. If it comes down to another straight fight between Isco and Di Maria for relevance, the Spanish midfielder ought to be concerned.
Then there is the Khedira conundrum. Clearly a surplus despite winning the World Cup a few weeks ago, there is no queue forming for the German's services and his contract runs out next summer. The suspicion is that Real would love to cash in, but to what extent is the price a matter for negotiation? Real paid Stuttgart around 15 million euros for Khedira. Anything approaching 10 million would surely represent decent business at this stage of the summer.
Di Maria is a harder nut to crack. The Argentine turned down Monaco, and PSG were apparently priced out of a move.
Real would prefer to sell to a non-European rival, and Van Gaal's United neatly fits that bill for the upcoming season at least. Whether the Old Trafford board can sanction a move without first offloading some dead weight is open to question, but judging by Saturday's performance against Swansea, Di Maria, one of Europe's finest midfielders, would be a timely acquisition for United. If Real can pull off another "Ozil" -- the Germany midfielder fetched 50 million euros on Aug. 31 last year -- both parties will be more than satisfied.
Meanwhile, Real is hardly a rock at the back, as La Viola and others have hinted at in preseason. Friendlies are one thing, two competitive fixtures against Diego Simeone's Atletico quite another. The truth about where Real stand as a team will be put to the test next week. With two young heads as central defensive protegees -- and two equally hot ones as the senior pairing -- reinforcement at the heart of the back four is not out of the question.
Friendly matches serve a purpose, but to a definitive point. Real's preseason is about to get distinctly unfriendly as Ancelotti's team, with due respect to Sevilla, faces its first bruising test. Anything other than a pass with flying colours and the Italian's claim that the shop is closed will ring hollow indeed.