Who will be playing for Real Madrid next season?
At the moment there are very few clear answers to that question, with the return of Zinedine Zidane as head coach giving fresh hope to some players while seemingly throwing the futures of others into doubt.
Zidane, of course, won’t be the only one making the decisions and all-powerful club president Florentino Perez looks likely to end his recent austerity policy by making a serious splash in the summer transfer market. That’s the only reason, surely, that Zidane agreed to come back in the first place.
If big names are coming in, that could well mean big names also are going out. Perez has always shown himself to be more than willing to jettison superstars in the past, no matter how big their name or how strong their position within the dressing room.
Raul, Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo are just three men who can attest to the president’s ruthlessness, and nobody in the current squad should feel too secure.
Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are among those under threat of being moved on this summer, but a lot can change in the next couple of months. With nothing to play for in terms of trophies, the remainder of this season can be basically regarded as a long audition, with Zidane running the rule over his squad to decide who deserves to be kept for another campaign.
That audition got under way with Saturday afternoon’s home meeting against relegation-threatened Celta Vigo, when Zidane gave an early indication of his intentions by recalling Isco, Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Keylor Navas into the starting line-up after spells in the wilderness under previous boss Santiago Solari.
All of them passed with flying colours, with Bale and Isco getting on the scoresheet in the 2-0 victory. Marcelo and Asensio played key roles in the build-ups to those goals and Navas made an excellent save from Maxi Gomez when the game was goalless.
We cannot forget that Zidane was without five players through injury and suspension, including almost-certain starters Dani Carvajal, Casemiro and Vinicius Junior. But it seems certain that the French tactician will, at the very least, give his established stars the chance to prove they are not ready to be consigned to the scrapheap.
New players, however, will certainly be recruited and, interestingly, the audition will not only be conducted at Santiago Bernabeu, with several existing Madrid men who are currently out on loan now in a new position to make their case for a recall to the club.
Mateo Kovacic at Chelsea, James Rodriguez at Bayern Munich and Theo Hernandez at Real Sociedad are the three highest-profile performers hoping to impress Zidane sufficiently, but there are plenty more who will be aiming to emulate the example of Casemiro. His Madrid career appeared to be over when he was loaned to Porto in 2014, before returning to become a regular starter.
Martin Odegaard, Borja Mayoral and Lucas Silva are among those hoping to catch Zidane’s eye in the coming weeks, but perhaps the most intriguing potential Madrid star is striker Raul de Tomas. He is enjoying an excellent campaign with relegation threatened Rayo Vallecano, netting 11 league goals to become the second-highest-scoring Spaniard in La Liga only behind Jaime Mata of Getafe.
De Tomas is exactly the kind of striker Madrid have been lacking this season: he is a penalty box predator, who comes alive whenever a sight of goal presents itself and has the confidence to get his shot away early (does that sound familiar to a certain former Los Blancos star?).
He has totalled more than 50 goals during various loans over the course of the last few years, but has a contract at the Bernabeu until 2023. He could be a strong option from the bench next season even if Perez and Zidane succeed in their apparent aim of luring Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain.
From Ramos to De Tomas, the remainder of Madrid’s current season is really already about next season, so on an individual level there is still plenty to play for – even if they are not trophies.
Zinedine Zidane marked his return to the Real Madrid hotseat by helping his treasured club to a first clean sheet in 10 games as second-half goals from Isco and Gareth Bale sealed victory over Celta Vigo.
The Frenchman made big selection calls and though his side were not fluent until midway through the second-half, a fine move started by Marco Asensio and finished by Isco eased nerves.
Marcelo then found Bale, whose low finish wrapped up the win and kicked off the second Zidane era with a flourish.
OLD GUARD, NEW ATTITUDE?
With nothing to play for except pride – and even that is unlikely salvageable from a disastrous campaign – Zidane could afford to massage the egos of some of the club’s biggest underperformers.
In came Isco, Marcelo, Bale, Asensio and Keylor Navas, who all suffer from a unique problem: peripheral, reckless, injury-prone, short of self-belief, and a lack of star appeal respectively.
It was a sensible ploy, really. Let the old guard prove they can remain relevant under the old/new regime, against a Celta Vigo side that had collected just four points from their last 11 La Liga games.
For the first hour there was little to suggest that those five, as a collective at least, would serve as the backbone of more famous Madridista triumphs.
Bale was energetic and crashed an acrobatic effort off the crossbar, though could have been sent off for a second yellow for his hack on Sofiane Boufal. Isco and Asensio were scrambling around for the same wavelength while Marcelo at one point was 20 yards up the pitch while Boufal was through on goal.
Navas pulled off a tremendous save from Maxi Gomez, from which Marcelo was also at fault. Some things never change.
We were then served up some nostalgia as Isco and Bale sealed the deal – but that shouldn’t fool Zidane. Every veteran needs to re-interview for his job, and it’ll be a 10-game audition. The troubling first hour against poor opposition can’t be forgotten.
MARCO … POLO
All that said, there was genuine hope for a young player who has looked like a husk of his previously effervescent self. What’s more, his demise hasn’t even been covered extensively compared to the dreary dramas surrounding Bale, Isco and Marcelo.
Asensio, remember him? The name at the forefront of a new era at the Bernabeu, where big-money signings were jettisoned and youth was encouraged.
The 23-year-old has looked anything but encouraged this season, registering just one goal in La Liga all year and struggling to conjure up opportunities for anyone else.
It was only natural given Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure – the void he left was a black hole that sucked all life from a Madrid attack that had become far too reliant upon his services.
Asensio can do a lot of things well. He’s tenacious, a wonderful passer, can dribble, has Thor’s hammer for a left foot, and is quick besides. However, we never see the whole package consistently.
But there’s space in the post-Ronaldo era for players to breathe, and in the 62nd minute on Saturday, he made the Bernabeu hold its breath.
Asensio surged up the middle, jockeyed one defender, cut another to ribbons and played through to Benzema, who whipped in a cross – and Isco did the rest.
It feels as if playing without Ronaldo has been a chore rather than just a challenge for some this season. With a little confidence, Asensio should start relishing it.
This is the Marco Asensio that had been in hiding all these months— Rez (@Asensiazo) March 16, 2019
Celta have shipped an average of 3.7 goals per game in their last 10 meetings with Madrid, so Saturday’s defeat actually represents something of an improvement.
For large spells it was difficult to believe that this side sat 18th and Madrid, wobbling giants though they are, could look so vulnerable.
If not for Boufal’s brain fades, and a similarly frustrating display from Pione Sisto on the other wing, Real would have been attempting to win from behind in the first half.
Ultimately Celta’s defence is not strong enough to withstand a barrage if their attack is not firing on all cylinders and shorn of their favourite son, the injured Iago Aspas, things will continue to look bleak.
Remarkably they have won just once without Aspas – who is suffering from a calf tear – in the last two years, a 1-0 victory last month over Sevilla. It has had a knock-on effect, too, as fellow striker Gomez has not looked the same without his diminutive forward partner up top.
He’s needed back – fast.
The Santiago Bernabeu rose to its feet to welcome back club legend Zinedine Zidane for his second spell as manager on Saturday.
Having been so blatantly shunned under the previous regime, it was fitting that Isco made the breakthrough in the 62nd minute with Benzema once again playing provider under Zidane.
Marcelo then assisted Bale for the second goal 13 minutes from time to seal all three points
Here’s how Zidane fared in his first match back in charge of Real.
Goals – 2
Shots – 22
Possession – 53%
Key passes – 19
Dribbles – 11
Tackles – 16
Old favourites make impact
Zidane’s team selection for his first game back at the helm spoke volumes. Outcasts Isco, Navas, Asensio and Marcelo were reinstated in the first XI as was the out-of-favour Bale. The Welshman hit the crossbar with a scissor kick in the first half and while he could’ve done better on a couple of other occasions, his threat continued to grow after the break and he sealed the win with Madrid’s second. Meanwhile, Navas made an eye-catching save in the 16th minute.
Asensio on the other hand went on some great runs and threatened the goal. Marcelo was a force in attack but – predictably – a liability at the back. Isco just looked like a player starved of minutes on the pitch. The Spaniard did bag the crucial opener though while Marcelo picked up the assist for Bale’s goal.
Celta Vigo’s defence is among the worst in the Spanish top flight but Madrid did struggle to carve out clear-cut opportunities in the first half. That’s largely down to some labourious play in possession. It’s a strange accusation against a team that boasts the creativity of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco in midfield but such is the reality at the Bernabeu.
Zidane no doubt pointed out this shortcoming at half-time and they did step things up a notch in the second period but there remains plenty of scope for improvement in that department.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Granted, it wasn’t as fluid as Zidane would’ve liked but it will take time to rediscover their swagger in the final third. What was evident though was the return of a more flexible attacking unit with Benzema reprising his role as a roaming number nine.
The Frenchman consistently dropped deep or pulled wide to get involved in the build-up play and it was no surprise when he set up Isco for the opener with a ball across the six-yard box from the left side.
A quick glance at the heat maps of Benzema, Isco, Asensio and Bale would give little indication of the positions each of them actually lined up in. Hardly a complex strategy but the message is clear – play with freedom and create space for each other.
Sometimes the result is far more important than the performance and this was one of those times. Zidane’s team selection will be debated but overall, it paid off. There were signs of his attempts to get this Los Blancos side purring again but it will take time until they can up their game. Not great, but good enough for now.