Real Madrid exit a very testing September by welcoming Club Brugge to Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League on Tuesday night.
Their schedule included trips to Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid which left Zinedine Zidane’s reputation oscillating from one extreme to the next.
But after the disaster in Paris, Los Blancos have steadied themselves and are primed to get their first European points on the board when the Belgian Pro League leaders travel to the Spanish capital.
Time in the Galacticos realm is warped and it’s something Eden Hazard is coming to realise.
The Belgium winger is obviously not up to full speed yet as he works out his physical fitness following injury and that’s naturally led to concern.
Real have been far more assured from a defensive standpoint keeping clean sheets in their last three fixtures, a tip of the cap to Casemiro on that front, but they have also looked anaemic in attack. Their xG (expected goals) against Atletico Madrid was 0.3 – leading to a magnification of Hazard’s slow start.
However, it’s not just his fitness which is a worry.
The 28-year-old’s quality cannot be questioned, but Zidane’s use of him so far in comparison to his time at Chelsea can be. Zidane’s widemen are tasked with slinging in crosses and it’s meant much of their play has been funnelled down the right side for Gareth Bale, often neglecting Hazard with the Welshman seeing more touches of the ball.
While Hazard was nominally positioned on the left for Chelsea he had license to drift inside or drop deep to collect possession and then attack defenders.
But so far for Real he’s been stationed much closer to the touchline and it’s put him on the periphery. Hazard is a focal-point player and he demands full attention rather than seeing the load shared.
In other words, Madrid have to start feeding him the ball far quicker and more often if they are to see full benefits.
Brugge provide the ideal contest to really unleash the Belgian beast.
JAMES RODRIGUEZ CONUNDRUM
One of the surprise omissions from Saturday’s Madrid derby was James Rodriguez, with the shock ironic given Zidane wanted him sold in the summer.
Indeed, the Colombia international has been one of Real’s more impressive performers this season, emerging as a more complete midfielder having exchanged some of his silk for steel.
James’ energy and work rate has been highly commendable and he’s provided much of the penetration from midfield through his sharp vertical passing.
With Luka Modric out of action, James’ quick thoughts and feet have been absolutely vital.
Yet pragmatism saw him dropped for the more defensive-minded Federico Valverde at Wanda Metropolitano, and the problem now is that with the Uruguayan assured and Modric back in the mix, it’s hard to see how James continues to be entrusted with major minutes.
While he has added a new dimension to his game, James’ natural position is still as a pure No10 and that requires at least two Casemiros in behind to facilitate.
Madrid are crying out for an athletic and dynamic midfielder with Modric’s physical decline last season leading to gaps everywhere, as he struggled to cover ground and sweep up like in previous campaigns.
Valverde’s stability and Modric’s standing in the side mean they are both ahead of the Colombian who still looks a little uneasy when it comes to midfield pressing.
JOVIC NEEDS TIME, TOO
Hazard isn’t the only one of the new additions to endure a slow start to their Real Madrid career.
Of the possible 720 minutes of action on offer, Ferland Mendy has accrued the most of the new signings with 270 minutes in the bank, and like Hazard, injury has curtailed his opportunities.
That hasn’t been the case for Luka Jovic, though, who has been restricted to just 218 minutes and only two league starts despite a clean bill of health.
Real are struggling in front of goal and have a man who scored 27 times for Eintracht Frankfurt last season on the bench.
One of his starts arrived last week against Osasuna and what was obvious in that game is that he is lacking the one key ingredient all forwards need to cook up a goal – confidence.
His overall performance was positive and there was even a slick finish. Relief flooded his usually stoic mask but made way for disappointment when VAR later ruled the goal out for offside.
The 21-year-old needs more time in front of goal to build some momentum and being tasked with leading the line against Brugge represents an ideal opportunity to do just that.
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