Season preview: Courtois and Benzema will be vital for Real Madrid

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Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (C) competes during a La Liga match between Real Madrid and Getafe CF in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2022. (Photo by Gustavo Valiente/Xinhua)

Real Madrid begin their defense of the La Liga title away to newly promoted Almeria on Sunday night, with a team that is unlikely to be very different from that which gave them a domestic and European double last season.

The only two signings of the summer are central defender Antonio Rudiger, who arrives on a free transfer from Chelsea, and 22-year-old defensive midfielder Aurelian Tchouameni, who cost around 80 million euros from Monaco.

Rudiger will give extra pace and power to what was already a mean defense last season and his arrival will probably allow Carlo Ancelotti to move the versatile David Alaba to left back.

Meanwhile Tchouameni provides extra competition in midfield and his arrival continues the renewal of the squad after the signing of Eduardo Camavinga a year ago.

Camavinga and the Uruguayan, Fede Valverde added energy to the trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, all of whom are well over 30, and that process will continue in what looks set to be a packed fixture schedule with the World Cup finals in the middle.

Real Madrid will be hit hard by the World Cup, with nearly all of their key players set to travel to Qatar. It's probably easier to pick the players who won't go (Alaba, Lucas Vazquez, Nacho), than those who do. With Brazilian quartet Militao, Casemiro, Rodrygo, and Vinicius Jr, and French trio Karim Benzema, Camavinga and Tchouameni all likely to be gone for around a month, the second half of November and early December are likely to be very quiet around the Valdebebas training ground.

Ancelotti must worry about the effects a mid-season World Cup will have on some players, especially the aging Benzema and Luka Modric, while other teams will effectively enjoy a winter break.

Benzema is especially important to Real Madrid as the striker, who will be 35 on the day of the World Cup final, scored 27 goals in LaLiga and 15 in the Champions League last season.

With Borja Mayoral having been sold to Getafe over the summer and Luka Jovic joining Fiorentina on a free transfer, Madrid only have Mariano Diaz as backup to the Frenchman and one of the key jobs between now and the end of the month has to be signing a reliable backup striker.

Espanyol's Raul de Tomas (a former Real Madrid youngster) has been touted as a possible target, but so far no deal has been closed.

Last season saw Carlo Ancelotti's side keep things tight in midfield and defense and then hit sides on the break, with Benzema and Vinicius Jr key to many of their wins. Rodrygo also progressed as a player last season and he will need to continue in the coming season to help spread the attacking burden.

It's probably fair to say that although they were by far the best side in a Liga in which both Barca and Atletico Madrid were below par last season, Real Madrid rode their luck in Europe, being outplayed in the majority of their knockout ties against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as against Liverpool in the final.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was Madrid's hero time after time and there is no reason to think the Belgian will see his form drop this time around. However, the danger for Madrid is complacency: they have a great keeper and a rock-solid defense and are adding energy to an aging midfield, but a lot still depends on Benzema and Vinicius.

It's unlikely that Barca will be as bad this time around in Spain, and although Madrid's Champions League spirit is unquestionable, other rivals in Europe have strengthened and unless Ancelotti's men also improve, their luck can't hold this time around. Or can it? 

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