Barcelona: Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane heads into the new season welcoming Eden Hazard but also having to deal with the conundrum of unwanted star Gareth Bale.
Zidane has rarely had a less than kind word for any of his players, but last month he bared his desire to get rid of Bale by saying the club was negotiating the player’s transfer and his exit would be “better for everyone’s sake”.
The deal Zidane mentioned with an unspecified club never materialised and Bale, for whom Madrid paid Tottenham a then world-record fee of 100 million euros, is still in Zidane’s squad ahead of the team’s Spanish league opener at Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Madrid can still sell Bale until September 2, but the closure of the English transfer market greatly reduces the possible suitors who could take on his reported salary of 15 million euros. Spanish media reports that Bale already rejected a big offer from a Chinese club.
So now Zidane can either rebuild his relationship with the Wales forward or ostracise the team’s highest-paid player and leave him on the bench in hopes the club will find a new home for him during the winter market.
Bale had his chance to become Madrid’s leader last season after the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Instead, he and most of his teammates underperformed and were out of the running for a major title several weeks before the end of the season.
Zidane returned to the club in March, less than a year after he had stepped down following a third consecutive Champions League title. With the team in disarray, he promised an overhaul of the squad in the summer.
Getting rid of Bale, who has swung from scoring eye-popping goals to being criticised by fans for his poor play, was supposed to be the key piece to the makeover of the 13-time European champions.
While Madrid have failed to find a new club for Bale, they successfully bolstered the squad — and their fans’ expectations — by bringing in Hazard from Chelsea.
After several seasons without signing a major star and instead snatching up promising youngsters, club president Florentino Perez changed tactics this off-season following a dismal campaign when the team sorely missed Ronaldo’s goals.
Hazard arrived for nearly 100 million euros, plus add-ons, thus beating the previous club record held by Bale.
The Belgium midfielder will lead a team that already has Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric in midfield. Karim Benzema will have some competition at striker after the arrival of 21-year-old Luka Jovic from Eintracht Frankfurt.
Barcelona have coasted to the last two domestic titles and the added presence of Antoine Griezmann in an already formidable forward line makes them favourites to land a third successive La Liga crown this season.
The Catalans will not just be looking to extend their domestic hegemony, though, as they have spent a combined 250 million euros on a renewed bid to win the Champions League after last season’s harrowing semi-final exit to Liverpool.
After finishing 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid to win an eighth title in 11 years, Barca acted ruthlessly by shelling out 120 million euros on Griezmann, who was their nearest challengers’ leading scorer in each of the last five seasons.
They did so even after Griezmann had publicly rejected an offer to join them the previous year, so strong was their urge to provide another layer of flair and firepower to an attack already containing Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
Griezmann will guarantee his side more goals but his creativity, intelligence and renowned work rate could prove even more useful, especially in the latter rounds of the Champions League, which Barca have failed to win since 2015.
“We are very happy with what he has given us so far, his movement offers us a lot and he works very hard in defence,” said Barca coach Ernesto Valverde of Griezmann ahead of their opener against Athletic on Friday.
Athletic Club v Barcelona, 11pm
Celta Vigo v Real Madrid, 7pm
Valencia v Real Sociedad, 9pm)
Mallorca v Eibar, 10pm
Leganes v Osasuna, 11pm
Villarreal v Granada 11pm
Deportivo Alaves v Levante, 7pm
Espanyol v Sevilla, 9pm
Real Betis v Real Valladolid, 11pm
Atletico Madrid v Getafe, midnight