Real Madrid prove vs. Roma they're not ready to be knocked off European throne
MADRID -- Three points on Real Madrid's 3-0 win vs. Roma in Group G of the UEFA Champions League.
1. Madrid, Bale not ready to be dethroned
Real Madrid have been European champions for the past three seasons, and they don't look ready to be knocked off their perch just yet. Against Roma on Wednesday, the signals were there that they could make a run for an unlikely fourth title in a row.
One person who stands to have a much simpler time recreating the magic of last season's European Champions League campaign is Gareth Bale. With Los Blancos desperate for a talisman to replace Cristiano Ronaldo's goal-scoring exploits, the Welshman appears ready to step into the void.
Those injury-riddled months of isolation, the doubts, the question marks over his price tag, the whistles and the boos; but now, with Ronaldo out of the picture, the path has cleared for Bale to create his own legacy at the Bernabeu. After the Champions League final when Ronaldo said "it was nice being at Real Madrid" and hinted at a move away, Bale did the same. Ronaldo was serious, and maybe Bale was too, but he just wanted to be counted on. Once the Portuguese departed, Madrid's No. 11 was happy.
And he has been on a mission ever since to prove to the fans at the Bernabeu, Julen Lopetegui and himself that he has what it takes. Real Madrid had 17 chances in that first half, and Bale accounted for five of them. Maybe the shots were born from that sheer ambition to be Madrid's first goal scorer of the 2018-19 campaign, the first in the Champions League in the post-Ronaldo era, something tangible to help his team win but something symbolic to announce his arrival as their talisman.
He didn't score the first, but he rifled home the second with help from a lovely Luka Modric pass. He hit the underside of the bar just before that, too, and on another day might have had a hat trick.
The debate will continue as to how Real Madrid will replace Ronaldo's goals, but Bale knows this is his time in the spotlight, and he's proving himself more than capable so far.
And amid a Serie A campaign in which Roma have dropped points in three of their opening four matches, last year's Champions League semifinalists suggested repeating that feat will be problematic in 2018-19. After conceding more than 60 percent of the ball and 30 shots in Madrid, the Giallorossi now sit bottom of Group G, looking up at both CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen, who drew on Wednesday.
2. Isco liberated under Lopetegui
"Maybe there are better players than me," Isco said after the Athletic Bilbao game as to why he thought he didn't start. The media, he says, were convinced that under Lopetegui, he would be a new man, but the creative midfielder wanted to dampen expectations a little bit.
Isco had started the season looking sluggish. He was in and out of the team in the opening five games, didn't have a clearly defined role and all of the early predictions about his new life under Lopetegui were falling apart.
In the two games since the international break, he has saved Real Madrid's bacon on one occasion, and opened the scoring against Roma with a lovely free kick after he was fouled outside the box just before the end of the first half.
There was a nervous tension building around the Santiago Bernabeu the longer the clock ticked on. The harder Real Madrid tried, the higher their shots were sailing over the crossbar.
Isco started on the left in the same position he played in during Lopetegui's spell as Spain boss. He unbalanced Roma time and time again and created chances while scoring the opening goal just before the break.
He was slow to start, but Isco is finding his groove under Lopetegui -- just like everyone expected.
3. No clearer who's Lopetegui's No. 1
Some of the turnover during the summer could not be avoided with Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane leaving, but one change was brought on by Florentino Perez and his desire to bring in a Galactico goalkeeper. While many of the wrinkles are ironing themselves out as the natural hierarchy reorders itself, we are still no clearer on who Lopetegui's first-choice goalkeeper is.
He assured everyone that the club had a plan for rotating Keylor Navas and summer signing Thibaut Courtois. The Costa Rican started the first two games in the league after getting the nod in the European Super Cup, too, but Courtois adjusted to his new environment and teammates and started the past two games against Girona and Athletic.
After keeping two clean sheets in the league with Navas between the posts, Courtois failed to do the same.
And so Real Madrid returned to Navas as starter against Roma. The sample size remains too small to determine a pattern. At the moment, there is none, but Navas kept another clean sheet and looked as comfortable as possible against a fairly blunt Roma attack.
Another good performance from Navas doesn't do a lot to kill the questions about what Courtois was brought in for.