Real Madrid might be a huge 15 points adrift of Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table, but Los Blancos have proven time and time again they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the business end of the season.
Hopes of defending their domestic crown have long since been over, but good form in the league – in which the Whites have won seven out of their past eight fixtures and overcome Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League during that same period – will be critical in their pursuit of an historic third-consecutive Champions League triumph under Zinedine Zidane.
Indeed, the mouthwatering first leg of their quarter-final clash comes against Juventus in Turin this Tuesday.
Valdebebas – the club’s training base – was unusually busy over the international break as Argentina and a certain Lionel Messi trained there ahead of their friendly against Spain in the Spanish capital. But there were also a host of Real stars still who were not away with their countries and had time to train alone at the facility.
Relegation-threatened Las Palmas are next up for Madrid in Gran Canaria on Saturday night and here we assess some key talking points ahead of the clash.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE ISCO?
The Spain playmaker has failed to produce his scintillating best this season and his comments, following Spain’s 6-1 triumph over Argentina and his first senior hat-trick, suggesting he has not received full confidence from Zidane plunge his future into doubt.
Remarks made during international breaks can often be taken out of context or indeed blown out of proportion, but you get the impression Isco knew exactly what he was doing. The can of worms has well and truly been opened.
“Maybe I am the problem,” was his response when quizzed about his role in the side.
A curious statement from a man who was a world-beater last season and the main figure, other than Cristiano Ronaldo, behind Real’s La Liga and Champions League success.
The past day or so at Valdebebas has sure to have been awkward between coach and player. Zidane needs clear-the-air talks and to find some clarity with Isco, immediately.
Whether or not the 25-year-old is just suffering from a confidence crisis or the weight of expectation, it is unclear, but it is not a rosy situation. The former Malaga man’s international showing should though be a welcome fillet to boost his morale and help him finish the season strong, while the Frenchman has other options in midfield.
The likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are fully fit and Mateo Kovacic is coming good, meaning he doesn’t necessarily have to rely on Isco like he once did.
With Manchester City and boss Pep Guardiola apparently set to come calling for Isco after the World Cup, it’s going to be intriguing what we see from him in the closing months of the campaign.
For this weekend, Isco actually has a back problem so it remains to be seen whether he will feature.
TIME FOR SOME FRESH LEGS, RONALDO TO GET A REST
Real Madrid’s international stars played the most minutes of action during the break than any other side from Europe’s top five leagues.
Some 16 Los Blancos personnel donned the colours of their respective nations, completing 2,027 minutes of game-time altogether across two fixtures in the process. To put that into perspective – Real stars spent 381 minutes more on the pitch than second-placed Barcelona with the likes of Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), Toni Kroos (Germany), Sergio Ramos (Spain), Casemiro (Brazil) and Marcelo (Brazil) all completing 180 minutes of play ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Given members of Zidane’s squad were playing all across the globe, his players would have filtered back in drifts and drabs this week – giving him limited time to work with his men collectively and run the rule over their fitness upon return. As such, expect the 45-year-old to make full use of his resources this weekend.
The main man likely to be rested is Ronaldo despite his ridiculous form, which has seen him score 21 goals in his past 11 matches for Madrid.
With a firm eye on Tuesday’s clash against the Old Lady, his legs should be spared, even though he won’t like it. Such sensible game management has paid off of late.
Marcelo is set to sit this one out too, while Dani Carvajal is suspended.
Ramos is another who could be left at home.
That means the likes of Karim Benzema, who is currently out of the reckoning for France, as well as Theo Hernandez, Fernando Llorente and Kiko Casilla all could get run-outs. Expect Modric to play given he returned from international duty from Croatia early after being given special permission to step up his fitness independently under the watchful eye of Real Madrid’s strength and conditioning team.
Gareth Bale, who scored last time out against Girona, should also get minutes as Zidane tries to sustain the Welshman’s confidence levels.
ACHRAF HAKIMI GROWING IN MATURITY, BUT NEEDS TIME
The Madrid-born, Morocco right-back has had a breakthrough season to remember and let’s not forget he is only 19.
From now until the end of the season, it will be interesting to see whether Zidane hands him more game time but Hakimi has admitted himself he still needs to grow as a player.
“I feel a little more important here with Morocco, also because of the fans’ affection and the continuity I get in the line-up,” he said during the international break. “I am happy with the coach’s confidence, but when I play at Madrid I also try to do my best and I am happy there. I am young and I want to learn.”
Like Isco, interesting words but good intentions all the same.
The Real Madrid B graduate will of course come up against Ronaldo’s Portugal and Ramos’ Spain in the World Cup, as well as Iran – and is set to become the club’s youngest-ever man to play in a Finals. That’s some going, given the history of the Whites and he is in good hands to continue his steady development and not get ahead of himself.
In the same interview, as reported by Marca, Hakimi revealed his intentions to stay at Madrid for years to come and has quickly become a man (or boy) the La Liga side can call upon as a valuable back-up and feasible option to play in low-key league matches while other players get rest. There’s a chance he’ll feature this weekend and be part of the run-in until the end of the season, which can only be good for player and club moving forward.
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