The crowd of 64,141 fans at Hard Rock Stadium Tuesday night witnessed the official start of Real Madrid’s Post-Ronaldo Era, as the Spanish powerhouse played Manchester United in a matchup of two of the world’s most famous clubs.
Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo left Madrid for Italian club Juventus this summer, and one of the most pressing questions in European soccer heading into the upcoming season is how Los Blancos will fill the void. Ronaldo’s absence was obvious in the early going, as Manchester United struck twice in the first 26 minutes with goals by Chilean fan favorite Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera of Spain.
Karim Benzema gave Real Madrid fans something to cheer about just before halftime, as he slipped behind United defenders Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Eric Bailly a few yards out and netted a cross from Theo Hernandez.
ManU held on for the 2-1 victory, leaving manager Jose Mourinho in a much better mood than he was after losing 4-1 to Liverpool in the previous game before 102,000 fans in Ann Arbor, Mich. But the coach reiterated that preseason games are meaningless, especially when so many vacationing World Cup players were missing.
“The match doesn’t change anything,” he said. “My players were amazing all preseason because we played against good opponents. We have just a few professional players here, lots of kids. We had a couple of players out there 16 years old...And they were also phenomenal outside the pitch with so many commitments, lots of meet and greets, work with foundations. So, the result of the game is not important. If we play Real Madrid in the Champions League, that result is important.”
Tuesday’s match, part of the International Champions Cup summer exhibition tour, was missing some key World Cup players from both teams, but the evenly-divided fans didn’t seem to mind. Real Madrid’s fans were excited to see the debut of newly-signed Brazilian 18-year-old forward Vinicius Junior, who teamed with Gareth Bale and Benzema in the attack.
Tuesday’s game was the first for Junior, a phenom who had signed with Flamengo’s youth team in Brazil at age 10. The teenager showed with some fancy footwork why there has been so much buzz about his signing.
It was Real Madrid’s first preseason game, while Manchester United had played four friendlies before Saturday. Tony Kroos, Isco, Marco Asensio and Nacho came in as subs in the 77th minute, much to the delight of the fans.
“This was our first test, and the way our players performed was more than acceptable,” Real Madrid’s new coach Julen Lopetegui said after the game, adding that his team was at a disadvantage against a ManU team that had played four games. “Right now, the most important thing is not the result, it is all the other little factors. We’re trying to grow as a team, and get the most of the players we have.”
Defender Alvaro Odriozola, playing his first game for Madrid after a recent transfer from Real Sociedad, said it was a very special night for him, wearing that jersey for the first time. He added that despite the loss, the team benefited from the match. “Considering it was our first game while they had already played four or five, we have to be satisfied. We just have to work on our fitness and tactics, but overall, we played well and showed a lot of promise.”
Gustavo Ventura and Junior Batista, Real Madrid fans from Deerfield Beach, were disappointed with Ronaldo’s summer move but optimistic about the team’s future.
”It’s kind of heartbreaking because the main reason we bought the tickets was to see him and then we find out he’s in Italy,” said Ventura.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the team to be the same for quite a while,” said Batista, a native of Brazil. “You lose the best player on the team and you have to regroup and find the next star. Maybe Venecius Junior will be that guy, we hope so.”
David and Alejandro Jarquin, brothers from Leon, Nicaragua, are huge Real Madrid fans and were curious to see the team without Ronaldo.
“We’re sad, we’re going to miss (Ronaldo), but the team has to step up and keep winning titles,” said David Jarquin. “I am very excited to see Vinicius Junior’s debut. I have a lot of expectations for him.”
ManU fans also were eager to see some new faces in the absence of the better-known players.
“I’m excited to see some new fresh faces like David de Gea and a lot of our new players,” said James Ro of Tampa, who was wearing his traditional team red scarf. “It’s my first ManUnited game, so I’m really excited.”
Among the 16 players missing from the Manchester United roster were Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Chris Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Marouane Fellaini, and Nemanja Matic.
Real Madrid was minus Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic and Fabio Coentrao.