“The preseason is over, the tour is over. We need to be ready in four days.”
Those were Zinedine Zidane’s last words in his news conference on Friday, after he was asked whether the apparently struggling squad would be able to compete against Manchester United next Tuesday in the UEFA Super Cup.
The question is relevant. During this preseason, the team, winless since Fabio Coentrao left for Sporting of Portugal, hasn’t resembled the victorious side of May and June. In fact, and even bearing in mind that these summer matches happen between squads that have barely trained together after the break, most rivals have performed better than the Madridistas. Barcelona and Manchester City looked fresher, more focused, with more hunger. With very few exceptions, Zidane’s men have looked slow, bored, almost bothered by having to play these matches.
But the real stuff, as the French manager pointed out, starts on Tuesday, and even though it would be chimeric to expect a full transformation, the Real Madrid we’ll see against Manchester United very likely will show a different face.
Some of the “blame” for the underwhelming performances so far must be shouldered by Antonio Pintus, the fitness coach. His methods, at first criticised by some players because of certain old school approaches, have now been accepted and praised by the most vocal players, such as Sergio Ramos. Last season, Pintus designed a full-year plan that kept most of the squad in reasonable shape for most of the season, and that allowed some of them, such as Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo, to peak at the right time, something we had not seen in previous seasons.
Pintus has started this preseason with a very heavy workload, and its effects were apparent in Real Madrid’s U.S. tour. However, two weeks into the plan, some players should already start to look faster and fresher, or at least that is what the fitness team expects.
Another element that can’t be understated is that the core of the team knows each other by heart. This group has been playing together for a few seasons, and that gives them an advantage, especially at this stage of preparation when neither side feels fully in shape yet. This season’s additions — such as Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente or Dani Ceballos — are young role players who should evolve with time, but the starting XI and some of the preferred bench players have performed at the Santiago Bernabeu for a while, and that counts extra when energy or shape aren’t quite there.
And even though the preseason results have been poor, a few bits of good news should help the team in the future. For instance, Keylor Navas has recovered his confidence, defending the fort with a handful of stunning saves whenever he’s participated. The aforementioned Theo and the young full-back Achraf Hakimi have proven that they can play with the best, or at least that Zidane can count on them as often as he needs to. And the gifted Marco Asensio, having had a short summer due to his involvement with the Under-21 Spanish national team, looks as fast and determined as he did when the season ended.
That said, some clouds stand in the horizon. The most obvious one is the team’s difficulties to score when Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t there, something that happened during specific spells last season. Karim Benzema and especially Gareth Bale seem to be suffering more than others this tough preseason, whereas Borja Mayoral’s struggles demonstrate that he needs more playing time, hopefully elsewhere, to be properly appraised.
After a long break, the season starts on Tuesday, with proper silverware involved. Even if the legs of a few players still feel a bit stiff, a title in play against Manchester United with Jose Mourinho sitting on the opposition’s bench sounds like motivation enough to forget the pain and look their best.
The show begins, finally.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.