With their early scoring struggles under Rafa Benitez spectacularly put behind them, Real Madrid will begin their quest to claim an 11th European Cup when welcoming Shakhtar Donetsk to the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday. Despite their recent goal glut, following Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal after falling at the semifinal stage last season, Benitez will know the stakes are high as the Champions League gets underway.
Through an underwhelming preseason and a goalless draw with newly promoted Sporting Gijon to begin La Liga, murmurs of discontent had already begun to be directed at a coach who was a hardly a unanimously popular appointment this summer. Yet those doubts have at least temporarily been put on the backburner. Following on from a 5-0 stroll over Real Betis two weeks ago, Real Madrid dismantled Espanyol 6-0 on Saturday. Even better news came with Cristiano Ronaldo getting off the mark for the season in style with five goals. Perhaps equally as encouraging was the part played by Gareth Bale. After a difficult campaign last season, Bale has been handed greater responsibility in the No. 10 role under Benitez. And he responded against Espanyol with a fine performance and two assists.
"I feel like I am more involved this year now,” Bale told Press Association Sport after the match. “The first year you are running off adrenalin from having just signed -- you are so happy to be at the club and that drives you on. But in the second year I felt a little bit left out wide and not getting so much of the ball but now I feel involved in the play and I think that is showing in the games that I am able to assist goals and score goals.”
As well as the shift in Bale’s position and a change in system to more of a 4-2-3-1, Benitez has also made his influence felt in overseeing greater rotation of his personnel. Madrid’s exit to Juventus in last year’s semifinals came amid tired legs and key injuries at the end of a season in which Ancelotti had rarely rested his most important performers. Toni Kroos was one of the players hampered most by his heavy schedule and it was therefore perhaps notable that he was left on the bench on Saturday.
The rotation has been aided by the fact that, despite there being no “Galactico” signings at Real Madrid this summer, the depth in the squad has been improved in most areas, through the presence of the likes of Casemiro and Lucas Vázquez. Still, Benitez has hinted that it’s unlikely Ronaldo will be given 90 minutes off any time soon.
“Rotating the squad isn’t something which is just done on a whim; it’s done to maximize the potential of the team,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “Sometimes we get it wrong. Rotating depends on the position. It’s not the same [to rotate] a full-back who has more of the pitch to cover than a forward like Cristiano. It depends on the exertion which each one of them has to make.”
Shakhtar can only dream of the same options as Real Madrid. The Ukrainian giants have long been a tricky opponent in the Champions League, reaching the knockout phase in three of the past five seasons. Yet veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu has been given a real challenge to repeat that success after the club sold off more of their top talent this summer. Winger Douglas Costa is already proving what a talent he is since his move to Bayern Munich, while Shakhtar must also replace striker Luiz Adriano, who scored nine goals in the Champions League last season.
Those departures didn’t prevent Shakhtar from coming through qualifying to take their place in the Champions League group phase. But, after getting past Fenerbahce in comfortable fashion, they suffered a scare before scraping through against Rapid Vienna. Still, like their opponents, Shakhtar come into Tuesday’s encounter in strong goal-scoring form, after winning 5-0 at Metalist Kharkiv last Friday.
Prediction: All is well for Benitez’s Real Madrid right now, but the real test of his team has yet to come. Shakhtar are unlikely to provide that on Tuesday, and. while the Ukrainians remain a competent outfit complemented by as ever by some Brazilian flair in the final third, they have the lost the star components of their side. Particularly at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid should record a comfortable opening win.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 2-0 Shakhtar Donetsk