MADRID • Gareth Bale believes Real Madrid "can be even better" in their quest for a record-extending 14th European Cup.
The talk emanating from the Santiago Bernabeu is of a team more balanced and united without their former talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, and the Wales forward insists there is still more to come from the European champions, who are bidding to lift their fourth Champions League on the bounce.
"There is more of a team, more working as one unit rather than one player," he told the Daily Mail ahead of Real's opener against Roma at home today.
"We can be even better again. Another start and another challenge. We're ready for it."
But Julen Lopetegui, who is making his managerial bow in the Champions League, feels his side, while favourites, can take nothing for granted, with last season's semi-finalists Roma tipped to push Real all the way in Group G.
"Debuting gives me pride, responsibility and enthusiasm," the former Spain coach told reporters at his pre-match press conference yesterday.
NO EASY START
Roma knocked Atletico (Madrid) out of the Champions League last season and then eliminated Barcelona (in the last eight). I expect a better Roma than last season. We expect to face an intense and aggressive team.
JULEN LOPETEGUI, Real's new boss, warning his side to expect a tough opening game.
CHANGE IN STYLE
Cris gave us a lot and took away very little. He was very direct, scored a lot of goals. Now, we have more possession, and another way to hurt our opponents and that is what we have to exploit.
SERGIO RAMOS, Real's skipper, on the team modifying their strategy.
"We're focused on the players who are still here and we're all ready to compete on all fronts.
"I won't explain what the Champions League is for Madrid. You have to face each competition with ambition and enthusiasm. Pressure always exists at Madrid.
"Roma knocked Atletico (Madrid) out of the Champions League last season and then eliminated Barcelona (in the last eight). I expect a better Roma than last season. We expect to face an intense and aggressive team."
Club captain Sergio Ramos concurred, saying there was "added incentive" this season with the competition final being held at the Wanda Metropolitano, home of cross-town rivals Atletico.
"It's both a source of pride and a degree of responsibility to defend the title for three years back-to-back. Winning three Champions League titles was no coincidence and we need to maintain a hunger and desire to keep being the best side in Europe.
"Irrespective of the venue for the final, a club like Real Madrid are obliged to defend the title and it's an added incentive that the game will be held at the ground of our city rivals."
The Spain defender remains confident Real will not suffer from a post-Ronaldo malaise, with Bale, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio, who Roma coach Eusebio di Francesco has deemed as a "Ballon d'Or winner in the waiting", all stepping up in the wake of his exit.
Benzema is currently joint-level with Barca's Lionel Messi with four LaLiga goals, while Bale is a goal behind after four games played, and Ramos is convinced Real's front three can forge their own identity.
"Cris gave us a lot and took away very little. He was very direct, scored a lot of goals. Now, we have more possession, and another way to hurt our opponents and that is what we have to exploit," he added.
Ramos also took umbrage at Antoine Griezmann's recent comments that he "already sits where Messi and Cristiano are" as far as the year-end Ballon d'Or award is concerned, telling the Atletico forward to learn some humility.
No player other than Messi or Ronaldo has won the accolade since 2008.
"Ignorance is very bold. Everyone is free to express their opinion, but this guy should be advised by (Atletico manager Diego) Simeone, (his club captain) Diego Godin or (team-mate) Koke, who have some values which could be helpful to him," he said.