Can Real Madrid win a fourth consecutive Champions League?
Background photo: Concepcion AMAT ORTA, CC BY 3.0
How can you discuss the Champions League favourites without mentioning the holders for the past three years? Zinedine Zidane may be gone. So too Cristiano Ronaldo. Nevertheless, you simply cannot discount Real Madrid until someone knocks them out of the competition. Los Blancos made history by becoming the first side to defend the tournament in its current format in 2017. Last season, they did it again.
The Spanish giants face greater challenges to continue their reign. Zidane and Ronaldo calling time on their Real Madrid careers leave two sizable voids in the squad. The club felt the effects almost immediately.
Appointed as Zidane's successor, Julen Lopetegui failed to keep the club on track. He was sacked after a 5-1 defeat in El Clasico left them 14 points behind Barcelona in La Liga's title race.
Replacing Ronaldo's annual 40-goal contribution is yet to be addressed. The club hasn't signed a proven scorer. Even when on song, Karim Benzema can't match his former teammate's scoring rate. Nor can he take games by the scruff of the neck at will.
Everyone has a player they believe can pick up the slack for the Merengues. Eden Hazard is constantly mentioned and hasn't denied his ambition. Neymar Junior and Kylian Mbappe also appear on the list even though their recent mega-transfers make another move almost impossible. On the other hand, interest in Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani has cooled on social media.
On the managerial side, Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger were mooted to permanently replace Lopetegui even though Real Madrid President Florentino Perez moved quickly to confirm Santiago Solari as his choice at least until season's end.
Nothing changed in January. The winter transfer window came and went with no elite striker or vaunted manager installed. The club kept faith in its young squad and the manager promoted from the B team. That decision has already paid dividends.
Solari wasted no time getting his players on track. Lucas Vazquez, Vinicius Junior, Karim Benzema and Sergi Regulion are firing on all cylinders. The atmosphere in the Spanish capital has brightened. With Solari in charge, Real Madrid improved steadily during the past few weeks.
A midweek Copa del Rey Clasico ended in a one-goal draw at the Nou Camp. Far better than the mauling Lopetegui's squad suffered in December.
The Merengues followed up with a comprehensive win at the Wanda Metropolitano in El Derbi, knocking off Atletico Madrid 3-1 thanks to Vinicius Jr's aggression and Gareth Bale's goal off the bench. They entered the weekend only six points behind Barca.
Their Champions League clash against Ajax in Amsterdam began badly but the referee and VAR bailed them out. A word from Solari at the half adjusted attitudes and Karim Benzema put them in front with a clinical finish. Marco Asensio then restored the visitors' advantage after Hakim Ziyech levelled for the Dutch side.
As always, the Champions League remains the priority at the Bernabeu even though the club is in with a shout in La Liga and the Copa. They began the campaign in shambles but it bears remembering they did likewise last season. The question to be answered is whether they can rise all the way to the top again without Ronaldo and Zidane's influence? Thibaut Courtois and Santiago Solari recently endorsed the possibility. Only time will prove them right or wrong.