Real Madrid travel to the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday to take on Levante in an attempt to bring their league campaign back on track after a shock defeat against Girona.
In the reverse fixture earlier this season, Levante eased to a win over Los Blancos at the Santiago Bernabeu. The scoreline read 2-1 in Levante’s favour, but the game was not as close as the one-goal margin suggested.
Levante will be looking to complete a double over Madrid and the psychological advantage provided by thrashing Celta Vigo 4-1 away from home could come handy.
We take a look at some of the talking points ahead of this key tie.
A CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SECOND-LEG REHEARSAL?
Sergio Ramos will be missing the second leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League last-16 against Ajax due to suspension. Unsurprisingly, suspension has followed the defender in the league too and he will be missing on Sunday after reaching his yellow card count for the season.
Although Ramos has had his set of sub-par games in Madrid’s back-line, he is still one of the most important players in the squad. His mere presence comes with a sense of fighting spirit and winning mentality that the rest of the team tries to imbibe.
The Spaniard’s rash late challenge on Kasper Dolberg – an accident or not – is a decision he might kick himself for later because Madrid are certainly less fortified without him in the side.
Sure, Nacho Fernandez can fill in for the skipper from a positional and attribute perspective. But mentally, that’s a big void to fill and if Real are struggling against Levante, who will inspire a resurgence?
Recent examples have shown that Levante are very much capable of creating problems for any team. Madrid’s reaction to being pushed on the back-foot in Ramos’s absence could be key, especially because it’s something they may face on a bigger stage in two weeks’ time.
MORALES REVIVAL CAN BE MIRRORED BY HIS TEAM
Goals is a currency which ultimately quantifies the value of a striker. While a number nine can also be an effective player in transitions and their role is not limited to just scoring goals, ending a long drought can help to improve confidence for other areas of the player’s game.
Levante enjoyed a reasonably good start to the season by their standards and at one point were lingering around the European qualification spots. But ever since a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona, Paco Lopez’s outfit have endured a poor run of results in the league.
Their feint prospects of a European spot are growing bleaker by the week and star striker Luis Morales dire run has hardly helped. Up until his brace against Celta Vigo last week, the 31-year-old had just one goal in nine games and hadn’t produced the goods in six straight La Liga fixtures.
That performance last week, though, was one of his best of the season and it will have given him a massive boost ahead of this game.
Levante are now on a four-game undefeated run at home in all competitions. With Morales finding his mojo again, a win against Real Madrid can hand them a huge psychological boost as they try to challenge for a European spot.
Had Barcelona dropped points against Sevilla, as they threatened to do so until Lionel Messi produced more magic, then maybe Solari could have viewed this game with a more serious eye.
The Argentine refuses to give up on the league title, especially with a La Liga El Clasico on the horizon, but given they are 12 points back heading into this clash and Barcelona haven’t lost the trophy from a leading position at this point in the season for the last 10 years, it seems awfully unlikely they will triumph.
So, the focus naturally turns to the Copa del Rey and Champions League. In recent years this has traditionally been the period of the season when Los Blancos really show up and power through until May.
The priority has to be on those two competitions. Madrid face Barcelona in the second leg tie, take on the same rivals in the Spanish top flight and then Ajax in the Champions League, all in a span of seven days, starting from Wednesday. Solari must be extremely intelligent with his rotations to keep his players fresh given their intense style of play.
An injury-prone Gareth Bale should probably be rested against Levante and saved for the midweek cup clash. At his age, it’s unlikely that Karim Benzema can deliver 100 percent in all four games in a 12-day window so should sit out as well.
Luka Modric was provided enough time off, thanks to a suspension in their last game, but resting Toni Kroos could pave the way for Fernando Llorente. Solari will say his side won’t give up the league, but his attention should certainly be elsewhere and his first XI will reflect that.
Know more about Sport360 Application