Results over the weekend certainly didn’t go their way, but Real Madrid now need to depend upon themselves if they are to keep their chances of retaining their league title alive. The reigning champions host Real Sociedad later this evening at 21:00 CET, and already know it’s a must-win, at any cost.
That’s because league leaders Atletico Madrid won what on paper was always going to be a tricky affair away at Villarreal, but they negotiated that with a 2-0 victory. And on Saturday, Barcelona too had a difficult away fixture, but they were fantastic, beating a 4th placed Sevilla side 3-1, who’s title charge now looks over. If there was a weekend where you thought Madrid could get a march on the title, then this one was it, but with their rivals securing huge victories, it’s over to Madrid to respond.
Zinedine Zidane has firepower back, having been limited to 12 first team squad members over the last five games, but he has now retrieved some key members, as they begin a decisive stretch in March. Los Merengues have five massive games this month, beginning with La Real, then the Madrid Derby next weekend, followed by games against Elche and Celta Vigo, which are sandwiched between their return-leg against Atalanta in the UEFA Champions League round of 16. But with the form they showed in February, there’s reason to hope. Madrid won all five games, scoring eight times and only conceding once, and that too, with an injury-decimated squad.
The key talking point
La Real have been hot and cold in their past five games in all competitions. They couldn’t handle Manchester United’s movement and transitional pace, and were battered 4-0. But then three days later, they followed up that result with a 4-0 win over Deportivo Alaves, a team which allowed them to play their brand of football. It’s a team that’s easy to analyse in many respects, they like to carve teams out through the center, and therefore, use their wide-men to occupy certain positions which allows the likes of David Silva or Mikel Merino to have free spaces in pockets in the final third. Merino and Asier Illaramendi missing this clash is huge for Imanol Alguacil, because they’re key in the center of the park.
Madrid will need to continue what they’ve been doing so well, allowing Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez to play further up the pitch, meaning Casemiro slots into the central defence to make a three man defence with Nacho Fernandez and Raphael Varane. The pace of the latter mentioned duo allows Madrid to play a higher line, therefore, balls over the top or angled passes through for the red-hot Alexander Isak won’t be much of an issue for Madrid to deal with. In general, one look at Alaves last weekend shows how easy they made it for La Real’s creative players. Isak was make late runs off the shoulder with ease, and that’s not something he’ll have against Madrid, who could sit back and allow the visitors to have enough of the ball, in order to quickly transition it towards their attacking options.
The hosts are boosted by the returns of Marcelo, Rodrygo Goes, Federico Valverde and Alvaro Odriozola. But their absentee list is still substantial, and missing the quality that they are would hurt any team across Europe. Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Eder Militao, Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema are still out, with Benzema and Hazard hopeful of making the Derby next weekend. The others are still out for longer.
As for the fifth placed visiting side, Luca Sangalli, Miguel Moya and Joseba Zaldua are still out with injuries, and Artiz Elustondo may require a late fitness test to feature because of his ankle issue.
The key duo missing are Merino, who is suspended, and Illarramendi. David Silva wasn’t involved in the UEFA Europa League second leg in midweek, so he’ll be well rested to lead and guide the side.
The last time they met?
It was the first game of the season, and it was a game which ended in a goalless stalemate. But it could have been a lot worse for the champions, because Thibaut Courtois made the save of the night to deny Isak in the first half, and then La Real came closest again after the break through teenager Ander Barrenetxea, who’s volley just went wide of the far post. But Madrid will certainly know it won’t be easy, it never is against the Basques, but it’s a must win if they are genuine about retaining La Liga.