Real Madrid find themselves in the unexpected position of remaining in La Liga’s title race and they will be looking to keep pace with leaders Barcelona when hosting Girona at Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.
Given their dire start to the 2018/19 campaign, it’s somewhat surprising Los Blancos have emerged as Barca’s leading challengers. But that position actually represents a conundrum for boss Santiago Solari.
His squad has been stretched this month by their fight on all fronts after the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg with Barca was followed by the top-flight Madrid Derby and then their round-of-16 Champions League opener at Ajax on Wednesday.
The Girona contest represents a chance for a respite. Naturally, Solari’s side can’t afford any slip ups with them riding a five-match win streak in the league and team news is where we begin our talking points for this fixture.
SOLARI TO SWITCH IT UP
Considering Los Blancos have hammered 11 goals past Girona in their three meetings this season, once in the league and twice during their two-legged Copa del Rey quarter-final clash, it’s fair to say this game has arrived at the right time.
The rest of Real’s season was always going to be shaped by their February exploits and so far, it’s yielded plenty of reward. A credible 1-1 draw at Camp Nou was built upon at Wanda Metropolitano, as a formidable 3-1 victory over Atletico Madrid hauled them into second.
And their suitcases were packed full of momentum as they carried their good form to Amsterdam and escaped back to Madrid with a 2-1 win.
Now, Real are back on home turf for the first time since swatting Alaves aside on February 3 and the impetus will need to be transferred to players who have been on the periphery of late.
Luka Modric has racked up five yellow cards and is suspended, Dani Ceballos will replace him.
Karim Benzema will likely be protected and rested after receiving a knock in midweek with either Mariano Diaz – who is in injury doubt as well – or Marco Asensio assuming the No9 role.
Expect Lucas Vazquez to return on the right-side as well after being displaced by Gareth Bale as the Welshman is in hot water for his crude celebration at Atletico.
Defence won’t be untouched, either. The entire back four, bar captain Sergio Ramos, could change.
Raphael Varane has recovered from a cold and so could swap with Nacho, while the full-backs Sergio Reguilon and Dani Carvajal are set to drop out with Marcelo and Alvaro Odriozola coming in respectively.
The Brazilian is the subject of our next talking point…
MARCELO DONE AT MADRID?
Marcelo has joined Isco on Solari’s naughty step and although it seems the Spain midfielder will unlikely remove himself anytime soon, the left-back should be presented with an opportunity to get back in the good books.
When Solari took the reins from Julen Lopetegui in October in the wake of the 5-1 El Clasico demolition, Marcelo was injured.
He returned in 2019 and the Argentine deployed him further up the pitch to allow him crucial minutes without the physical demands of the left-back slot.
But despite now returning to full fitness, Reguilon has assumed his position on a regular basis with Marcelo forced to sit out on the substitutes bench for the team’s last two vital fixtures.
It seems the decision has been made after a confidence-sapping showing in the Copa clash with Barca. He was targeted and invariably exploited by Malcom.
The space he vacates when venturing forward leaves Real unbalanced and Solari has since preferred the more athletic 22-year-old Reguilon.
Granted, there’s been doubts around Marcelo’s susceptibility defensively during his 10 years with the club, but they were always outweighed by his contributions going forward.
That doesn’t appear to be the case at the moment. Mentally, you wonder where his head is at after he spoke recently of feeling “lonely” now Cristiano Ronaldo has left the club.
He’s been linked with a move to Juventus in the summer and if the 30-year-old fails to take opportunities like the one he should be presented with against Girona, then his head might just be in a Bianconeri shirt next season.
ASENSIO AS A FALSE NINE
It was mentioned earlier that Benzema could be rested on Sunday and one of the options to replace him is Asensio.
The 23-year-old is another player to have struggled with injury since Solari took over and since the emergence of Vinicius Junior, his route into the first XI has been blocked.
However, his goalscoring performance against Ajax could convince Solari that he’s good enough to occupy a false-nine role.
He was electric in Amsterdam, registering five attempts in just 18 minutes – the highest for Real – and scoring an archetypal striker’s goal.
The Spain international showed he has the instincts to replace Benzema and having not started a game for Los Blancos since the mid-December win over Rayo Vallecano, he’ll be keen to remind Solari of his undoubted quality once more.
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