Real Madrid head to Celta Vigo tonight looking to push themselves ahead of rivals Barcelona in the battle for the LaLiga title.
Here, we take a look at some of the key talking points ahead of the clash at Balaidos.
With both Real and Barca locked on 87 points, it is the better head-to-head record which is keeping Luis Enrique’s men currently one step ahead. However, should Real pick up at least a point against Celta, then the destiny of the championship would be back in their own hands as they prepare to head to Malaga for Sunday’s finale.
Suffer an unexpected defeat, though, and it would be Barcelona back on course to lift the title when Eibar visit the Nou Camp.
Given the effort his squad put in to see of city rivals Atletico and book their place in the Champions League final, there could be some already allowing themselves to dream of defending their European crown against Juventus at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on June 3.
There were, however, no signs of any lack of focus as Real swept aside Sevilla 4-1 last weekend – and given the strong rhetoric of their head coach, you should not expect any complacency at Balaidos either, as Zinedine Zidane declared: “We don’t feel like champions. We are not going to relax and we have not won anything.”
Much was made of both James Rodriguez’s applause to the fans as he was substituted during Real’s final match at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday as well as his absence from training ahead of the Celta game – with reports circulating that the Colombian was set for a big-money summer move to Manchester United.
Zidane, though, played down there was an ulterior motive when tackled by the media, insisting the player was “with us” but had been nursing a “heavy blow” to his foot before adding: “We are only thinking about the three final (games) that we have got coming up.”
Anyone ready to ask ZZ again after the Champions League final could get a very different answer.
DO CELTA HAVE ONE LAST HURRAH LEFT?
While Real are in sublime form, Celta come into the match on the back of the disappointment of Europa League defeat in the semi-finals against Manchester United and not having recorded a victory in LaLiga since April when they beat struggling Granada 3-0 away. Six of their previous seven matches have ended in a loss.
The club issued an emotional open letter to supporters the day after the end of their European adventure which pledged to “carry on together, let’s keep on dreaming”. Coach Eduardo Berizzo sees no better occasion than Wednesday night’s high-profile encounter to produce the required response by “demanding a great performance to pay back our fans in the stands”.
Celtistas may well, as the club letter says, “make room for pride and hope” – but even for the most-hardened of supporters, and indeed Barca fans everywhere, turning over the mighty Real Madrid may just be one dream too many. Then again, they all said the Copa del Rey tie earlier this season was only going to have one winner…
Real Madrid must hold their nerve in the La Liga title run-in coach Zinedine Zidane warned on Tuesday ahead of the catch up game against Celta Vigo.
Real are level on 87 points with bitter rivals Barcelona but because Barca enjoy a better head-to-head record Zidane’s charges need four points from their two remaining ties with Vigo and Malaga at the weekend.
“We don’t feel like champions. We’re not going to relax. We’ve not won anything yet,” Zidane told a press conference.
“It’ll be difficult because Celta are a good team. We know that they’re a good opponent and it’ll be difficult, just like it was against Sevilla and will be against Malaga.”
“I can assure you we need to maintain our focus,” he said also confirming that Cristiano Ronaldo would only join the Vigo action if needed.
“He’ll be with us (for Wednesday’s game)s,” Zidane confirmed.
“Isco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lucas Vazquez will play if they have to. They’ll do their best not to get a card. You have to be positive,” he said.
Real also face a date with Juventus in the Champions League final in 18 days time where they will hope to have their lynchpin Ronaldo firing on all pistons.
The French coach was asked if he thought he was appreciated by the giant Spanish club.
“I think everyone is happy with me and that’s it. Right now I’m not thinking about the future. Right now I’m not worried. When I get in to the changing room I enjoy everything that I see and do, nobody will take that away from me,” he said.
Zinedine Zidane has confirmed Gareth Bale is still absent for Real Madrid’s home meeting with Sevilla on Sunday, placing the Welsh star’s availability for the Champions League final in further jeopardy.
Although there are still three weeks until the big showdown with Juventus in Bale’s hometown of Cardiff, the former Tottenham man has been missing since last month with a calf injury and Zidane would be reluctant to risk him unless he proves his fitness in one of Madrid’s three remaining league games.
That prospect currently looks remote, with the French boss striking a far from encouraging tone as he revealed: “We are taking it day by day with Gareth.
“He is not back with us yet and still has some problems. I don’t know when he’ll be back but I hope it will be soon.”
Another player absent through injury today is Pepe, meaning that the veteran Portuguese defender has probably already played his last game at the Bernabeu ahead of his expected departure from the club this summer.
The 33 year-old will be out of contract and although his future has not been confirmed, it is thought to lie away from Madrid amid reports of big-money offers from clubs in China, the United States and Italy.
And Zidane hinted that Pepe’s time with the club is indeed coming to an end, saying: “He’s had a tremendous career.
“He’s been here for ten years and done fantastic things. I don’t know what he’ll do next year because I’m only thinking about this game, and he won’t play because he’s bothered by pain in his ribs.”
After today Madrid’s remaining league games will be played away from home, with Wednesday’s trip to Celta Vigo followed by a season finale at Malaga next weekend.
If Zidane’s team collect seven points from those three games they will definitely be champions, but despite the proximity of the prize the French coach confirmed he will continue his long-standing rotation policy by making several changes from the team which started against Atletico in midweek.
One player who could be rested is forward Karim Benzema, whose brilliant piece of skill to tee up Isco’s tie-winning goal against Atletico has been showered with lavish praise in the last few days.
The Frenchman has been criticised for his lack of goals in a season which has seen him register just nine league goals in 27 appearances, but Zidane made it clear that he focuses on his compatriot’s other qualities.
“I’m more interested in how he associates play with his teammates, because we’ve got a lot of other players who can score goals,” Zidane said.
“I didn’t need to see the Atletico game to know what a great player he is.”