An unlikely top-two clash awaits on Saturday when Real Madrid welcome promoted Granada in La Liga.
There shouldn’t be any surprise linked to the fact that Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Santiago Bernabeu hot seat has propelled Los Blancos to the summit. But Tuesday’s unconvincing 2-2 Champions League draw with Club Brugge continued a curious campaign in which high performance has regularly proved elusive.
El Grana, in contrast, have defied all expectations to sit only one point behind the weekend’s hosts, deservedly beating Barcelona 2-0 along the way. Diego Martinez’s men have scored more goals than Madrid (13/12) and conceded less than the aforementioned champions (six/10), making them good value for second place.
Here are the talking points ahead of this enticing match-day eight clash:
LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES
Madrid, literally, are in dire need of a left-field solution.
A damaging ripple effect has caused Zidane to scramble for left-back options this weekend. None are obvious at this stage – a dangerous proposition versus opponents who’ve won four of their last five fixtures.
This is now top of a lengthening list of problems that includes €100 million Belgium forward Eden Hazard’s slow start, a one-paced midfield and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ illness.
Summer-buy Ferland Mendy’s enduring groin problem ruled him out of the Brugge stalemate, while Marcelo’s neck injury made him fit enough to only start from the substitutes’ bench. Stand-in left-back Nacho Fernandez, however, would be withdrawn at half-time because of knee ligament damage, ensuring Marcelo would play for 45 minutes and pick up a separate hamstring strain.
Nacho is now out until 2020, Marcelo could not train in the remaining days of this week and Mendy requires further treatment. How they could now do with Sergio Reguilon, whose excellence on loan at Sevilla earned him a first call-up to the senior Spain squad for this month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers at Norway and Sweden.
Where Zidane goes from here is difficult to fathom. Especially after he declined to promote Castilla options Fran Garcia and Javi Hernandez to the seniors on Friday.
Wales forward Gareth Bale began his career at left-back and was entrusted with greater defensive responsibilities in the win at Sevilla and draw with Atletico Madrid. Dani Carvajal’s excellent start to the season could be interrupted, while a lifeline may be handed to the ignored fellow right-back Alvaro Odriozola.
A bolder solution could see a return to a three-man defence, with Brazil’s Eder Militao coming in.
Whatever contingency is chosen, Granada’s match-winner against Levante, Antonio Puertas, will relish facing them.
GRANADA’S GUNS ARE BLAZING
This is a special time for the Andalusians.
Not since the early 1970s have they looked so accomplished among Spain’s elite.
Manchester City loanee Yangel Herrera has represented a burgeoning force in midfield alongside Angel Montoro, while three-goal top scorer Puertas is blossoming during a first taste of La Liga aged 27 and skipper Victor Diaz is evergreen.
Sartorial head coach David Martinez has gained deserved plaudits for refined workmanship on a squad that is redolent of the sharp suit jackets he dons on the touchline. Steep progression from finishing second in the Segunda Division to sitting second in La Liga befits wide acclaim, especially when Granada’s six-year stay in the top flight ended as a rabble in 2016/17.
This praise reached fever pitch in last month’s downing of Barca. They ceded 74 per cent of possession on the day, yet a superior tally of nine attempts to their opposition’s eight details a lethality on the counter-attack that Madrid must be wary of.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
A cacophony of boos rained down on the bedraggled Madrid players when they trudged off at 2-0 down in midweek.
It was hard to argue they were not warranted. Lackadaisical Los Blancos had been repeatedly wrenched open on the counter-attack by the Jupiler Pro League leaders, sloppy in possession and impotent in attack.
Nigerian forward Emmanuel Dennis’ admittedly clumsy brace was not without merit. And then came the belated cavalry charge, inspired by lively substitute Vinicius Junior and sealed through headers from stalwarts Sergio Ramos and Casemiro.
These schizophrenic qualities against Brugge are emblematic of Zidane’s first full season back at the helm.
0 - Real Madrid have failed to win their opening two games to a Champions League season for the first time ever (D1 L1). Challenge. pic.twitter.com/o7Zjmau283— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 1, 2019
Unforgivable defensive errors in the shameful 3-0 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain disappeared in stoic performances versus Sevilla and Atleti; Levante were torn asunder for 60 minutes, before Belgium No1 Courtois’ heroics were required to claim a 3-2 triumph against Levante; La Liga’s only unbeaten side conceded five unanswered goals in their first 145 minutes of 2019/20 European action.
Madrid have won their last eight matches against Granada, scoring 28 – including April 2015’s 9-1 demolition – and conceding two. A type of consistency the 2019/20 iteration of Madrid has found so difficult to pin down.
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