Insatiable Real the team to beat again in Spain
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Brimming with confidence after their Liga and Champions League double last term and having watched their two biggest rivals weakened over the summer, Real Madrid are in an ideal position to consolidate their status as Spain's top club this season.
The champions have steadily strengthened their all-powerful squad as they bid to retain the Spanish league title for the first time since 2008.
Barcelona, however, have been stripped of one of their most prized assets after selling Neymar to Paris St Germain and Atletico Madrid have been stunted by a ban on registering new players.
Real have snapped up two of the brightest young talents in Spanish soccer in left back Theo Hernandez and midfielder Dani Ceballos and brought back Jesus Vallejo and Marcos Llorente from loan spells, further bolstering an already versatile and dynamic group of players.
Their unrivalled strength in depth was one of the crucial factors in picking up a first title in five years last season as coach Zinedine Zidane heavily rotated his side against lesser opposition.
The attacking firepower of their second string has been somewhat weakened by the departure of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez, however, as the pair scored a combined 31 goals in all competitions last term.
Real had a disappointing pre-season tour of the United States but any doubts about their quality ahead of the coming campaign were banished with a dominant 2-1 win over Manchester United to win the European Super Cup, when they did not call upon Cristiano Ronaldo until late in the game.
The four times world player of the year is likely to be the team's top scorer again this campaign after hitting peak form at the tail end of last season.
What is most impressive about Real, however, is the ubiquity of their goal threat.
Twenty-one different players hit the target last season for Zidane's side and seven hit 10 or more goals, including defender Sergio Ramos, while the team have scored in each of their last 66 competitive games.
Brazilian Casemiro, for example, has developed from a holding midfielder primarily picked to shackle the opposition into a box-to-box player with a knack for scoring in big games, striking in the Super Cup and Champions League final as well as against Barcelona, Napoli and Athletic Bilbao.
Spain midfielder Isco meanwhile became the team’s primary creative force towards the end of last season and is likely to take on more responsibility this campaign, threatening Gareth Bale's status as a first-choice pick.
The biggest challenge for a coach of a winning team is to keep players motivated for more success. That, however, appears not to be an issue for Zidane, who has won six trophies in little more than 18 months in charge of Real.
"We know there is so much talent in our squad and with hard work we can keep achieving more things," said the former world player of the year after the Super Cup triumph.
"This team has so much hunger, it always wants more."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)