Real Madrid have fight, but for how long can they scrape results?

In the context of this season’s title race in La Liga it could prove be a big moment. Sevilla have ambitions of their own, with Julen Lopetegui taking the Andalusian side into the top four. Some have even suggested that Sevilla might make themselves outside challengers for the Spanish title this season. They must have fancied their chances of leaving the Santiago Bernabeu with something on Saturday.

Real Madrid, though, claimed a 2-1 win to establish a three-point lead over Barcelona at the top of La Liga with their Catalan rivals set to play Granada at home on Sunday evening. This was the sort of game Zinedine Zidane’s side likely would have dropped points from earlier in the season. It could even be argued that Sevilla were the better of the two teams on balance.

With Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Fede Valverde all out through injury or suspension, Real Madrid were short-handed. The absence of Benzema in particular posed Zidane with a real problem. The French striker is enjoying the season of his life, but the drop off in quality in Benzema’s absence is dramatic.

Luke Jovic set up the opening goal with a clever backheel flick for Casemiro, but the Serbian striker has struggled to find his place at Real Madrid since joining from Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer. In the main, Jovic doesn’t facilitate others around him in the way Benzema does. Thus Real Madrid are a poorer team in attack with the Serbian leading the line. This was evident against Sevilla.

And yet Real Madrid still managed to find enough within themselves to claim a crucial three points at a critical point of the season. This has become a trend for Zidane’s side over the past few weeks. It was a similar story against Atletico Madrid in the final of the Spanish Supercopa, with a penalty shootout getting Real Madrid over the line when they probably should have lost in 120 minutes of open play.

This is obviously a good quality to have, but for how long can this sustain Real Madrid? There is still a sense that they have yet to find top form and top gear this season. They have scraped through games at time, just getting over the line when they probably should have fallen short. Zidane still has to take Real Madrid to a higher level.

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Luka Modric is coming to the end, but remains Real Madrid’s brightest spark

2018/19 was a peculiar season for Luka Modric. The Croatian shone at the Russia World Cup, leading his country to the final. May 2018 also saw him lift the Champions League trophy for the third straight year. Modric struggled for fitness and form after the summer of 2018, though.

It was arguably his poorest as a Real Madrid player, which made his success in winning the Ballon d’Or somewhat ironic. This led to speculation over Modric’s future at the Santiago Bernabeu. Last summer, it was even rumoured that he could leave for Serie A, with Inter believed to be long-term suitors of the player.

At 34 years old there is little doubt that Modric is now entering the twilight of his career. This prompted many to suggest that Real Madrid should cash in on a player who had been one of their most influential over the past decade, but now has a limited shelf life. On the basis of what we have seen this season, though, it’s just as well they didn’t.

It’s true that Zinedine Zidane is using Modric more sparingly, resting the Croatian more often than he has in the past. Modric might not even be considered a member of Real Madrid’s favoured starting lineup, with the emergence of Fede Valverde leaving Toni Kroos and the Croatian to fight over one midfield position. Against Barcelona before Christmas, for instance, Modric started on the bench.

And yet the 34-year-old remains Real Madrid’s brightest spark when he is on the pitch. He might not have the mobility any longer to win the fiercest of battles in the centre of the pitch, explaining why Zidane has taken to favouring Casemiro, Kroos and Valverde in midfield for the biggest games, but Modric has rediscovered his inherent creativity this season.

“Modric is such an important player for this team and he’s always going to be,” Zidane said after a particularly impressive performance by the Croatian in an important 3-0 win over Getafe, a result which lifted Real Madrid level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga. “Luka Modric is Luka Modric.”

This might still prove to be Modric’s last season at the Santiago Bernabeu, with Inter still thought to be interested in the player and speculation still swirling, but at least if he leaves now the Croatian will leave good memories right up until the end.

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How badly will Real Madrid miss Fede Valverde against Sevilla?

It was the moment that essentially decided the Spanish Supercopa final. Real Madrid’s win over Atletico Madrid in Saudi Arabia last weekend won’t be remembered for the penalties in the shootout, nor will anything during the 90 minutes stick in the mind. Instead, Fede Valverde’s cynical, last-ditch tackle on Alvaro Morata will be remembered.

The Uruguayan midfielder didn’t really have any other choice. With five minutes left of extra time, Morata was released clean through on goal. Valverde was the only one chasing back and so it was up to him to fell the Atletico Madrid striker, taking the straight red card for his troubles.

Valverde picked up the Man of the Match award almost purely for his tackle, raising a debate over whether such a decision was in the spirit of the game. Whether it was or wasn’t, the 21-year-old will now miss Real Madrid’s home match against Sevilla on Saturday, a landmark moment in this season’s title race at the top of La Liga.

The Uruguayan has become a key member of Zinedine Zidane’s side this season. He has filled a hole in Real Madrid’s midfield, leaving Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to fight over just two positions. It’s no exaggeration to say Valvede is now one of the first names on the team sheet.

Against Sevilla, Real Madrid will need to win the battle in the centre of the pitch. Julen Lopetegui will have revenge on his mind, returning to the Santiago Bernabeu for the first time since he was sacked as Real Madrid manager last season, and his team, currently sitting in fourth place, are a strong outfit capable of beating the best.

This is a critical point of the season for Spain’s top two. The fixtures will come thick and fast over the next few weeks as the Copa del Rey and Champions League start to clutter their schedule. A lot will be demanded of players like Valverde, but the 21-year-old will miss Saturday’s important match.

It will instead be up to the likes of Casemiro and Kroos to disrupt Sevilla’s play through the middle of the pitch. The Andalusians are excellent in transition and so Real Madrid must provide protection for their back four. Valverde would have helped do this. Finding someone to perform his duties will be key to what happens on Saturday.

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Is Raul Gonzalez destined to be Real Madrid manager one day?

It had rumoured for years, so there was little surprise to the reports that surfaced on Saturday morning claiming Barcelona want Xavi Hernandez to be their next manager. The former midfielder is currently in Qatar as Al-Sadd head coach and has long been tipped as a future boss of the Catalan club. That future might now be a little closer with Ernesto Valverde under intense pressure after recent results.

Of course, Real Madrid have their own Xavi-type figure. Raul Gonzalez has long been talked about as a future manager of the Santiago Bernabeu outfit, currently in charge of the club’s Castilla team. He, like Xavi, seems destined to take the reins of the club they became a legend for as a player.

He might have to wait a bit longer to take to the touchline at the Santiago Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane was under pressure earlier in the season, with a series of poor results and performances putting his job on the line, but he has since turned things around. Many now see Real Madrid as the frontrunners in this season’s La Liga title race, tied with Barcelona at the top of the table.

However, football fickle, especially in the Spanish capital where Real Madrid went through no fewer than three different managers last season. Zidane looks secure right now, but the Frenchman is only ever two or three bad results away from a crisis. Florentino Perez isn’t exactly known for patience.

Perez is also known to be a fan of Mauricio Pochettino. If Zidane is sacked at some point in the not so distant future, the former Tottenham manager is likely to be at the top of the shortlist. But Pochettino won’t be out of work for much longer. As Europe’s most sought after coach, he will surely have a job before the start of next season and it’s difficult to envisage things could unravel that quickly for Zidane at Real Madrid.

This could move Raul up the hypothetical shortlist. The former forward has impressed many with his start to managerial life at Castilla and could feasibly follow the precedent set by Zidane in making the jump from Real Madrid’s B team to coaching the senior team. Raul had a great football mind as a player and Real Madrid could soon count on him having the same as a manager.

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Does Brahim Diaz have a future at Real Madrid?

It’s now one year since Brahim Diaz made his debut for Real Madrid. At the time, the midfielder’s signing from Manchester City was viewed as quite the coup for the Spanish giants. Brahim might have struggled for first team opportunities under Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium, but this was a player who seemingly had a bright future in the game.

The initial impression made by the youngster was a good one. Real Madrid suffered a dismal second half of the 2018/19 season, but Brahim was one bright spark for them. Heading into the summer, it seemed that he would be a part of Zinedine Zidane’s plans going forward. That no longer looks to be the case, though.

This season, Brahim has played just 41 minutes for Real Madrid. Even taking into account the appearances made towards the end of last season, he has received just 435 minutes of first team football in a year. That is not nearly enough for a player at this stage of his development. He needs to play.

For Brahim, this has raised the possibility that he could be loaned out in the January transfer window. Of course, Real Madrid already have a number of bright, young talents out on loan – Martin Odegaard is at Real Sociedad, Achraf Hakimi is at Borussia Dortmund and Takefusa Kubo is at Real Mallorca – and so this wouldn’t be a decision without precedent. What’s more, the success of the aforementioned trio proves the success of this programme, with Odegaard one of the best players in La Liga this season.

This would suggest that Real Madrid still have high hopes for Brahim. Odegaard, for instance, is still considered a key part of the club’s future, but is out at Real Sociedad to gain first team experience. A similar sort of move for Brahim would surely serve him well and return him to the Santiago Bernabeu a more hardened professional and more rounded player.

However, other reports claim Real Madrid would be open to offloading Brahim entirely, seemingly unconvinced that he will ever be good enough for them. This would be a hasty decision, particularly given how few first team opportunities he has been handed this season. Brahim has never been given the chance to show what he can do in a winning team. Getting rid of him now would be a waste.

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Spanish Supercopa presents Real Madrid with chance to put down symbolic marker

It feels somewhat peculiar that having just returned from Spain’s two-week winter break, with La Liga fixtures played last weekend, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia are in Saudi Arabia of all places to contest the newly formatted Spanish Supercopa. What used to be the traditional curtain-raised to the Spanish Liga season is now a mid-season mini tournament played abroad.

The change in format and host has naturally caused controversy. Few within Spanish football are in favour of the move to Saudi Arabia in particular, both from a human rights point of view and a travelling perspective. Indeed, few have made the trip out from Spain with Atletico Madrid and Valencia in particular only selling a handful of tickets for their respective semi finals.

However, there is a certain symbolism at play here. The Spanish Supercopa might not be much more than just decoration for the trophy cabinet, but it could see one of Barcelona or Real Madrid put down a marker just weeks after a dull Clasico clash which couldn’t divide the two rivals. This could do more to set the tone of the title race.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have both suffered their problems this season. The two rivals have struggled for consistency, but the latter appear to have more momentum behind them at this moment. In terms of the league table, only goal difference is enough to put Barca ahead of Real Madrid right now.

Of course, the Catalans still have to get past Atletico Madrid on Thursday evening to set up a Clasico meeting with Real Madrid in this weekend’s final, but winning the Spanish Supercopa, even if they do so without beating their main title rivals, would be a real statement of intent from Zinedine Zidane and his players.

“We’re not coming here for a walk,” Zidane explained after of the convincing 3-1 semi final win over Valencia on Wednesday. “It’s the first edition in Saudi Arabia and the competition is a great hope. It’s an important competition and we want to give our all to play a good match tomorrow (Wednesday),” said Zidane. It’s a one-off match. It’s not like playing in La Liga. We’re both playing away and it’s just one match. Everything changes but our mentality, it doesn’t change.” He sounded like a man who recognises the value of winning this competition at this time.

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Raphael Varane starting to usurp Sergio Ramos as Real Madrid’s bedrock

Initially, it seemed that Raphael Varane had scored both goals in Real Madrid’s impressive away win over Getafe on Saturday. In the end, the opener was credited to Getafe goalkeeper, David Soria, with the opposition shot-stopper punching into his own net under pressure from the French defender.

Nonetheless, this was a match that illustrated just how important Varane is to Real Madrid at this moment. With Sergio Ramos ruled out of the match through suspension it was up to the Frenchman to lead the defence against an opponent up for the fight. Getafe have enjoyed an exceptional season so far and the Coliseum Alfonso Perez has become one of the toughest places in Spanish football to visit.

Eder Militao looked uncomfortable with the intensity and ferocity of Getafe’s high press in the first half, but Varane was a calming influence alongside the Brazilian youngster. Over the course of the match, Real Madrid steadied and this was largely down to the performance of Varane.

He also carries a goal threat, as demonstrated in the goal he scored and the other he forced in the 3-0 win over Getafe on Saturday. That is similar to that also posed by Ramos, but there are signs that Varane is starting to usurp the Real Madrid captain as the club’s defensive bedrock. Varane is becoming the player Zidane is building his team on.

“I already said that you have to be calm in front of goal,” Zidane explained after the Getafe win, underlining how many scoring options his team has. “You have to be calm because sometimes the ball does not fit. And with goals today from Varane, it shows that we have many resources to score. For us, it is important to win here because it is a very complicated league. The boys have been plugged in since minute one with great intensity.”

This hasn’t stemmed speculation linking the 26-year-old with an exit from the Santiago Bernabeu. Indeed, Varane’s name has become a staple of the gossip column in recent years. Tottenham are the latest club to be linked with the Frenchman, with Jose Mourinho reported to be a fan of his former player.

However, Real Madrid would be extremely foolish to sell their best defender. At 26, Varane is coming into his peak years while at Ramos is well into his twilight as a professional. If they are to place their faith in one over the year at this point, it has to be the former. He represents the defensive future of the Spanish club. In fact, he’s the present as well.

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Thibaut Courtois has achieved redemption at Real Madrid

It’s not so long ago that Thibaut Courtois found himself a target. The Belgian goalkeeper started the season poorly, with Zinedine Zidane handing summer signing Alphonse Areola a few starts. Some argued that Areola should have kept his place as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper, at least for a spell.

Zidane stuck with Courtois, though, and the 27-year-old has now achieved redemption. He has been one of Real Madrid’s best performers over the past two months or so with his display in the win over Getafe on Saturday crucial to pulling the capital club back to the top of the Spanish Liga table.

The 3-0 scoreline of Saturday’s match at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez flattered Real Madrid. Getafe dominated large periods of the game and created the better of the chances. Courtois stopped them from finding the back of the net, pulling off save after save. It was quite the performance from the Belgian and the sign of a goalkeeper in form.

Confidence had long been an issue for Courtois, even going back to his final season at Chelsea. He arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu seemingly weighed down by the pressure of being a ‘Galactico’ and never really coped with it until recently. Now, Courtois looks much more comfortable with his position at one of the biggest clubs in world football.

Recently, Courtois has been much more commanding. He has forged a stronger relationship with his defence. This is what Keylor Navas had going for him – the Costa Rica appeared to have a greater understanding with the likes of Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane in front of him.

Of course, Navas is now gone, making the move to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, leaving Courtois as Real Madrid’s undisputed number one goalkeeper. Again, that pressure seemed to weigh heavy on the 27-year-old at first, but he has now embraced all that comes with the role.

Courtois has turned himself from a weakness into a strength into a matter of weeks. He did more than anyone on the pitch to earn Real Madrid a win over Getafe on Saturday, even more than any of the players who found the back of the net for the capital club. Zidane doesn’t need to concern himself with the man between the posts anymore. He has other things to worry about.

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Will 2020 see Luka Jovic finally find his place at Real Madrid?

He was one of Real Madrid’s marquee signings. Only Eden Hazard cost them more than Luka Jovic in the summer, with the Serbian striker making the move to the Santiago Bernabeu from Eintracht Frankfurt for around £60 million. On the basis of Jovic’s performances for the German side last season, it looked to be a shrewd addition.

After all, Real Madrid needed a striker. Karim Benzema had stepped into the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo the year before, but with the Frenchman now well into his 30s he needed someone to rotate. It was even pondered whether Jovic could play as a strike partner to Benzema. 4-4-2 has come back into vogue across Europe.

Instead, Jovic has largely had to watch from the sidelines. He has struggled for game time since joining Real Madrid, starting just three La Liga games and scoring one for his new team this season. Some have even speculated that the Serbian could be sold or loaned out with his national team manager also casting doubt on the player’s character and mindset.

“I take care of each player to get the best of the national team,” Ljubisa Tumbakovic said in a recent interview. “I’ve never given up on anyone. One player who has moved away from the team is Luka Jovic and, in truth, he’s the only one. There are no problems between us. Luka Jovic’s problem is Luka Jovic.”

2020 presents Jovic with a fresh start, though. The fixtures will now come thick and fast for Real Madrid as they move into the second half of the season and squad depth will be crucial for Zinedine Zidane as he fights for honours on all fronts. Jovic will have a role to play even if he has to play second fiddle to Benzema, who is enjoying the season of his life.

There is quite clearly a talented player in Jovic. He took the Bundesliga and the Europa League by storm last season, earning a reputation for himself as one of Europe’s best young strikers. There’s a reason Real Madrid paid around £60 million for him. It can take some players a while to get used to the environment at the Santiago Bernabeu (just ask Luka Modric). Real Madrid mustn’t write him off just yet when he still has so much to offer them.

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James Rodriguez’s return from injury could be timely for Real Madrid

Many at the Santiago Bernabeu had forgotten about James Rodriguez. It’s likely that a number of Real Madrid fans were unaware that the Colombian playmaker was still on the books of their club. But James returned to the Spanish capital over the summer and earned himself a place in Zinedine Zidane’s squad again.

James endured a difficult end to his two-year loan spell at Bayern Munich and so it was expected that Real Madrid would sell him to raise funds for another transfer, potentially a move for Paul Pogba. Now, though, Zidane might well be counting down the days until the Colombian returns from injury.

He contributed over the early part of the season, proving that he still has something to offer Real Madrid. James then suffered an injury and has been missed for the past two months as his team have gained some momentum, sitting just two points behind Barcelona at the top of La Liga.

With Real Madrid set to return from their winter break next week, James is expected to feature. He will almost certainly get some game minutes against Getafe before Real Madrid head off to Saudi Arabia to play in the expanded Spanish Supercopa. The Colombian will play a part.

“He’s in a process of recovery,” Zidane said in a recent interview when asked to assess James’ recovery. “He’s had a bad injury, but he’s working a lot and we want to get him back fit, this is clear.” It took some time for Zidane to settle on his midfield formula, but between Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Fede Valverde he was found an effective unit.

Players like James, as well as Isco, will be key to getting Real Madrid through the whole season, though. The fixtures will come thick and fast after the winter break and Zidane will have to rotate his squad. James provides experience and the sort of creativity that will sustain the likes of Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard in the final third.

If Zidane can get something out of these fringe figures, Real Madrid might well boast the strongest squad in La Liga this season. That could be key in deciding who finishes top of La Liga. James might have been the forgotten man at the Santiago Bernabeu, but he has now become an important figure.

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