New Real Madrid tested in Champions League without Ronaldo

MADRID—Things have changed for Europe’s most successful club. The Real Madrid team that will begin its Champions League campaign against Roma on Wednesday looks nothing like the one that dominated European soccer in the last few years.

For the first time in nearly a decade, Madrid will be without Cristiano Ronaldo, the competition’s leading scorer and the team’s biggest star. It will also be without Zinedine Zidane, the coach who was replaced by Julen Lopetegui after resigning following last season’s title.

Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, left and defender Sergio Ramos enter for a press conference in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday.
Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, left and defender Sergio Ramos enter for a press conference in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday.  (Paul White / The Associated Press)

Ronaldo was crucial for Madrid as it won the Champions League the last three seasons — and four times in the last five years.

“Ronaldo marked an era with Madrid, he broke all the records,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said Tuesday. “But that’s in the past. We can’t live from what he did in the past. The hole he leaves is big, but it has been filled by other players who have a lot of ambition. We have a very competitive squad.”

Madrid added Thibaut Courtois in goal, but made no other major signings to try to replace Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have played well early on and the team is off to a good start in the Spanish league.

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It’s a different Real Madrid, though. The team used to play with the ultimate goal of putting Ronaldo in a position to score, leaving most other players with a secondary role. Now the team plays more collectively and the responsibility is spread throughout the squad.

“Cris gave us a lot,” Ramos said. “He was very vertical, scored a lot of goals. We often played taking advantage of counterattacks. Now we have to adapt to another style. We have more ball possession and we attack our opponents in a different way. We have to explore that.”

The man in charge of Madrid’s new team is Lopetegui, who arrived amid controversy after being fired from Spain’s national team two days before the World Cup for taking the Madrid job without telling federations officials in advance.

In his first job in one of Europe’s top leagues, Lopetegui tried his best to downplay Ronaldo’s absence.

“We are focused on the players we have,” he said. “We are thrilled with the team that we have and we are ready to play for everything. We are convinced that we will have a great season.”

Lopetegui is in for a difficult Champions League debut as Madrid faces Roma in its opener on Wednesday at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The Italian club is coming off a semifinal appearance last season.

“Roma eliminated Atletico in the group stage and then Barcelona in the quarterfinals,” Lopetegui said. “It has kept the same coach and the squad has improved. I expect an opponent that is even better than it was last season. We will need to play a great match.”

The other two Group G teams are CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen, which play Wednesday in the Czech Republic.