Real Madrid travel to Valencia to face Levante this afternoon at 16:00 (CEST), for what will be their third away game already of the new campaign. Zinedine Zidane’s side have picked up seven points out of a possible nine so far, and yet, still go into this match looking for more rhythm and match sharpness.
Madrid struggled to clinch the three points last time they took to the pitch, with Vinicius Junior coming off the bench to score the winner against Real Valladolid in a game which Madrid created over six chances to score, but as ever, were frustratingly lacking at the most decisive end of the pitch.
Levante springing a surprise today is therefore not out of the question. It’s a side which knows how to sit back and defend in a low block when needed, and can hurt the opposition going forward. From their three games so far, Paco Lopez has seen his team lose to Valencia and Sevilla, but pick up the win against Osasuna, all three contests away from home, so this is the first time they play at the Estadi Ciutat de València this campaign.
Against their city rivals Valencia in their opening game, Levante showed defensive frailties, especially with their high defensive line which was punished by Los Che on the night in that six-goal thriller. But José Luis Morales, who scored two that night, showed how dangerous he can be against a defence in sixes and sevens, which means Madrid will have to be tight at the back. Morales was then key again as Levante bounced back to beat Osasuna, he was causing all sorts of havoc, but it was clear to see what they’re trying to achieve under the charge of Lopez. Plenty of players overlapping and making late runs, contesting the opposition’s offside trap, with balls in from the right or angled vertical balls from central areas. They struggled against Sevilla though, and Julen Lopetegui’s team could have probably scored over four goals, but just weren’t hitting the target. Sevilla did well to close Levante’s passing channels, and therefore they found it tough, and didn’t create many openings at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan.
Key talking point
That’s where Madrid will need to capitalise too. Giving Levante space in pockets can hurt Madrid over the 90 minutes, especially considering the home side will want to hit the defending champions with an early goal, and then they’ll be happy sitting back, damaging Madrid on the counter. The most obvious key talking point ahead of today’s clash is how Zidane solves his right-back issue? With both Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola injured, he’ll have to play either Nacho Fernandez or Lucas Vazquez there, or, he could change the system altogether and play with three at the back with wingbacks.
That would be a very interesting option. In a back-three consisting of Sergio Ramos being flanked by Raphael Varane and Ferland Mendy, that gives an option to play Marcelo as a left-wing back for further creativity, and Vazquez or Fede Valverde could play as the right-wing back. Valverde would be the obvious choice, considering Zidane plays him on the right-hand side of the pitch anyway, and his runs into the attacking third to whip in crosses is something the team is accustomed to already.
In a formation of 3-5-2 when defending and a variation of that when attacking could be something to experiment with – Zidane has obviously been testing new ideas in the opening three games as it is.
It doesn’t get any easier for Madrid though, and Zidane’s message of ‘expecting to suffer’ is genuinely true, especially at difficult away stadiums. Real will be without Carvajal for about two months with a sprained knee sustained in training, and back-up right-back Odriozola is also out for 2-3 weeks with a muscular injury. Toni Kroos is still out with a hip issue, while Mariano Diaz and Eder Militao continue their recoveries. And Eden Hazard’s new muscular injury will see him out of the contest too.
Today’s hosts will still be without Hernani, and perhaps Cheick Doukoure too. The key man for Levante will undoubtedly be Morales, who will probably partner Roger Marti up front in a dangerous front duo.
The last time these two sides met was back in February, when Levante looked to have damaged Madrid’s title hopes in front of a home crowd. Morales smashed in a second-half winner, after the eventual league winners missed a handful of opportunities, particularly the ones for Benzema, Casemiro and Hazard.
Their first meeting of last season was at the Santiago Bernabeu in September, when Madrid almost threw away a 3-0 first-half lead, with poor concentration and intensity in the second half, as Levante scored twice but could have sealed a point late-on had it not been for a Thibaut Courtois save at the death.
It’s an opponent Real struggle against, and therefore, defensive solidarity and chance creation needs to be the focus for Zidane here, but most importantly, he needs to find the right balance in the absence of a traditional right-back. Another difficult 90 minutes await Madrid’s players and fans across the planet.