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Who needs Ronaldo? Isco, Bale & Real Madrid liberated by Lopetegui

7:18 am AEST 20/9/18
Gareth Bale Real Madrid 2018-19
The reigning European champions may have missed the clinical Portuguese at times against Roma but they are playing with a newfound freedom

No more dirty looks, no more gesticulation, no more refusing to celebrate when somebody else scores.

Cristiano Ronaldo did a lot for Real Madrid but didn’t always make things easy for his team-mates.

With the Portuguese striker at Juventus now, Julen Lopetegui’s side are breathing freely and growing into their own skin.

Champions League holders Real started their defence of the title with a thumping 3-0 win over last season’s semi-finalists Roma on Wednesday, dominating the game and creating enough chances to have scored many more goals.

Isco’s precise free-kick, Gareth Bale’s bullet and a spectacular strike from Real’s new No.7, Mariano Diaz, ensured the only mentions of Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabeu were about the red card he saw for Juve at Valencia on his first match back in Spain.

Nobody would cast doubt on Ronaldo’s role in Madrid’s three consecutive triumphs in this competition, but Los Blancos appear none the weaker for his departure.

Instead, they are playing the kind of exciting, attacking football which rarely appeared under Zinedine Zidane. If the Frenchman’s Madrid was led on Ronaldo’s cold-blooded effectiveness, Lopetegui’s is far more of a team effort.

While Ronaldo’s finishing prowess was missed in the opening stages in which Madrid created a myriad of chances, it certainly wasn’t when Isco stood over a free-kick, just before half-time.

The Andalusian playmaker drew a desperate foul from Daniele De Ross on the edge of the Roma penalty area, picked himself up and curled a sensational free-kick over the wall and in to break the deadlock.

Roma goalkeeper Robin Olsen didn’t move, instantly aware he had no chance of reaching Isco’s perfectly struck effort.

It was Isco’s second free-kick goal for Madrid this year from just four attempts. By contrast, Ronaldo had nine in 2018, converting precisely none.

The Portuguese hogged dead-ball opportunities at the Santiago Bernabeu and his departure has cleared the way for Isco and others to step up and try their luck.

Bale, who has four goals in his last five Madrid appearances, finally looks at home as the team’s main man up front. His goal was brilliantly taken, a low rocket which seared across Olsen and nestled in the far side of the goalkeeper’s net.

“It’s maybe a bit more relaxed (without Ronaldo),” Bale said ahead of the game. “I suppose there is more of a team, more working as one unit rather than one player.”

That was evident in the way Madrid played, with joy rather than nerves. It showed up in Luka Modric’s wonderful midfield play, in Marco Asensio’s sublime turn and outrageous attempted no-look finish, kept out by Olsen, and in Mariano’s cherry-on-the-cake third.

On as a substitute for his second Real Madrid debut, after being brought back in from Lyon this summer, Mariano whipped in a wonderful strike from distance to cap a perfect start to the new European campaign.

It was a Ronaldo-esque strike from the man who inherited the Portuguese’s shirt, a special individual moment to go with Lopetegui's tactically adroit and teamwork-focused Madrid performance.

Real, tyrants in the Champions League over the past five years thanks to Ronaldo, will maintain that status without him – and perhaps have more fun along the way.