Is Alvaro Morata good enough to lead the line for Atletico Madrid?

Atletico Madrid have turned their season around somewhat since the resumption of the Liga season, with a strong run of form carrying them up to third place in the table. While the capital club not so long ago looked set to miss out on a place in the top four and Champions League qualification, they are now within touching distance of pulling up a seat at European club football’s top table again.

Of course, Atleti wanted much more than just a top four place this season. The original aim was to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title. Both sides are going through generational transitions and so many saw the door to be open for Atletico Madrid. They too have gone through a transitional season, though.

The conversion of Marcos Llorente into an attacker over the last few weeks has been a revelation. The former Real Madrid man has been exceptionally influential higher up the pitch, hitting a rich vein of form that started with his brace in Atletico Madrid’s Champions League win over Liverpool at Anfield before the coronavirus shutdown struck.

Alongside Llorente, Diego Simeone has largely favoured Diego Costa. The former Chelsea striker looks to have found fitness and form again since the restart, with Simeone using Costa as a battering ram to use next to the more creative Llorente. So what place does Alvaro Morata now have at the Wanda Metropolitano?

The 27-year-old has been rotated in and out of Simeone’s side over the last few weeks, vindicating the decision to hand him a start against Real Mallorca with a brace in a 3-0 win. Before that, though, Morata had been struggling for form, with his only goal since the restart coming in a 5-0 demolition of Osasuna.

There’s no suggestion that Simeone will look to move Morata on, with the striker only signing permanently from Chelsea in the January window, but there are questions over who will lead Atletico Madrid in the long-term. Edinson Cavani, who is now a free agent after leaving Paris Saint-Germain, has been strongly linked with a move to the club. Would Morata be knocked further down the pecking order in the case of Cavani’s arrival? Is the Spanish international good enough to be Atleti’s first choice centre forward? And if he is, how will he fit in?

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Thibaut Courtois has become the ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted

For a long time, it seemed to be in David De Gea’s destiny that he would one day be presented to the Santiago Bernabeu as a Real Madrid goalkeeper. Were it not for a faulty fax machine, the Manchester United shot-stopper would have signed for the Spanish giants in the summer of 2015.

In the end, though, Real Madrid signed another former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper, with Thibaut Courtois joining Los Blancos two summers ago. At the time, many saw the Belgian’s addition as unnecessary. Keylor Navas was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the game. What’s more, the Costa Rican was a favourite with the club’s fans.

Initially, Courtois struggled. The pressure of playing for Real Madrid, in front of one of the most demanding fanbases in world football, appeared to get to him, turning in a number of less-than-convincing performances. Now, though, Courtois has grown into his role. He has become the ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted for a number of years.

Real Madrid’s defence has been key to their challenge at the top of the Spanish Liga table this season and Courtois has more than played his role in that. In the early days, the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane looked unsettled with the Belgian behind them. They were more comfortable with Navas as their goalkeeper.

The relationship between Real Madrid’s number one and the centre backs in front of him has improved a lot since then, though. Ramos and Varane are now the strongest defensive pairing in the Spanish game, but without a solid goalkeeper like Courtois behind them they wouldn’t be so formidable.

“I’m happy with him and I’m sure he’s happy with the game he put in,” Zidane said about Courtois after a particularly impressive performance from the Belgian earlier in the season. “He’s our goalkeeper, we’re happy with him. We have to keep this up, keeping cleans sheets… He’s my keeper, for me he’s the best, no doubt about it.”

La Liga is awash with world class goalkeepers at the moment. Jan Oblak and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen are among the very best in the game right now. Some might even rank them as number one and number two. Courtois, however, has joined that sort of company this summer with his performances for Real Madrid.

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Are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano?

At first, it was something of a novelty, but the sight of Real Madrid playing home games at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano while the Santiago Bernabeu is being redeveloped has become a familiar one over the last few weeks, with Zinedine Zidane’s side winning four from four games they have played at their home from home.

Previously only used for youth games and Castilla fixtures, Real Madrid’s training ground stadium in Valdebebas has hosted the Liga leaders as they chase down only their second Spanish title in the last eight years. Zidane and his players have looked at ease in these surroundings.

It is, after all, where they train every day. There is a luxury hotel on site for Real Madrid’s players to stay overnight should they want to relax the night before the game and not have the worry of a commute into the centre of the city. Zidane has got his players into a routine of walking over to the stadium from their lodgings on the other side of the complex.

It’s all very leisurely and that has relaxation has been evident in the performances Real Madrid have turned in at their temporary home since the resumption of the Spanish league season. This begs the question – are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano than they have been in recent times at the Santiago Bernabeu?

The Santiago Bernabeu might be the club’s historic and spiritual home, but there is a fear factor to playing there – for home players as well as those visiting. Ask Gareth Bale about that fear factor. He has experienced it first hand over the last few years. The historic venue is a footballing coliseum, but the casualties are often Real Madrid’s own players.

The rural, lowkey surroundings of the Valdebebas training complex have eased Real Madrid back into a title race that, at the time of La Liga’s resumption, looked destined to go down to the wire. It would have been understandable had Zidane and his players felt the pressure, but that pressure hasn’t been evident in their recent performances. Real Madrid will return to the Santiago Bernabeu and their world will regain some sense of normalcy, but for now the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano seems to be the best home for them.

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Zinedine Zidane deserves more credit for turning Real Madrid around

He is the most successful manager in the history of the Champions League, becoming the only coach to win the European Cup three times by leading Real Madrid to a victory over Liverpool in Kiev two years ago. And yet Zinedine Zidane, as he left the Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2018, was still seen as a somewhat fortunate figure.

The Frenchman, they claimed, was fortunate to preside over the strongest team in European football. Anyone could succeed at Real Madrid, they said. Of course, this theory was blown out of the water when, with largely the same squad, Julen Lopetegui and then Santi Solari floundered as Zidane’s successors the very next season.

This prompted Florentino Perez to lure Zidane back to the club where he has since turned things around. Barcelona’s draw against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night means Real Madrid can go four points clear at the top of La Liga with a win over Getafe on Thursday. With just five games to play after that, this would almost certainly be an unassailable lead.

Of course, many of Real Madrid’s flaws have still been exposed over the course of the 2019/20 campaign. While this season might end up a league title in-hand, it hasn’t been a vintage season in terms of the performances produced on the pitch. But that Real Madrid still find themselves in charge of the title race underlines Zidane’s influence.

In an age of footballing ideology, Zidane has been harmed by his lack of a defining managerial identity. Unlike the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and even Jose Mourinho, he doesn’t mould teams in one specific way. Instead, he works with what he has and adapts. That is his strength, as is winning.

Real Madrid have hit the ground running following the restart, winning all five of the games they have played. Zidane has forged a winning team from a group of players that lacked any sort of coherent approach when he returned to the Santiago Bernabeu just over a year ago. And yet still the Frenchman doesn’t get the credit he deserves. When the best coaches working in the game right now are listed, Zidane rarely emerges top. Sometimes he isn’t even mentioned at all. The results, however, prove that the Real Madrid manager should be in that discussion.

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Atletico Madrid finally on the road to salvaging their season

The picture was bleak for Atletico Madrid as they returned to action after a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus shutdown. Diego Simeone’s side had endured a difficult campaign and faced an uphill battle to just finish in La Liga’s top four, securing their place in next season’s Champions League.

Now, though, things look a lot better. Atletico Madrid have found a vein of form, winning four of the five games they have played since La Liga’s return to lift themselves up to third place in the table. With the end of the season now coming into sight it appears the capital club will once again have a seat at the top table of the European game next season.

A few tweaks from Simeone have contributed to this change in fortune. Of course, the faltering form of those around Atletico Madrid has helped, with Real Sociedad and Getafe in particular struggling to pick up where they off in March, but the Argentine coach deserves credit for the changes he has made.

One major tweak has seen Marcos Llorente been converted into something of an attacker. Signed from Real Madrid last season, Llorente was initially used as a holding midfielder. His performance at Anfield, scoring twice to knock Liverpool out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage, seemingly opened Simeone’s mind to his attacking capabilities.

Llorente has been pushed higher up the pitch and has given Atletico Madrid a creative presence that they were previously lacking in the final third. His new role has added a new dimension to Simeone’s side, opening up space around the edge of the opposition box and in the penalty area. Atleti are a better balanced side now than they were at any other stage of the season.

Diego Costa has also found some form having had three full months to rest up, while Atletico Madrid’s defence is doing a better job of defending set pieces, giving Simeone a bedrock to build his team upon. All of a sudden, there is a structure and form to Atletico Madrid’s play again. They are a team unit again.

Of course, even if Atletico Madrid finish in the top four, this season cannot be considered a success. They targeted silverware before the start of the 2019/20 campaign. But they are finally on the road to salvaging something and giving themselves a platform again.

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Karim Benzema-Eden Hazard partnership has changed the picture for Real Madrid

Something has changed at the Santiago Bernabu since the resumption of the Spanish Liga season – or the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano as Real Madrid’s home stadium is until the end of the 2019/20 campaign. They have taken their time, but Zinedine Zidane’s side have finally found their groove.

Indeed, Los Blancos have won all four of the matches they have played since the return of La Liga to rise to the top of the table. Victory over bottom side Espanyol on Sunday will see them go two points clear of Barcelona, putting them in pole position to win over their second league title in eight years.

There have been a number of different factors behind this resurgence, but the developing partnership between Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard has fundamentally changed the landscape for the club. This is the duo around which Zidane now seemingly plans on building his entire side around.

Real Madrid have struggled for attacking cohesion ever since the moment Cristiano Ronaldo swapped the Spanish capital for Turin, joining Juventus in the summer of 2018. Benzema picked up some of the slack somewhat last season, but Los Blancos struggled to fill the void left by their record top scorer.

Hazard was signed as the heir to Ronaldo, but the Belgian is a very different sort of player. It wasn’t clear until a few weeks where exactly he would fit into the Real Madrid team, with injuries fragmenting his first season in the Spanish capital. Now, though, the picture is much clearer.

Benzema and Hazard operate on the same wavelength. They have only been teammates for a year, not even a full season yet, but they recognise each others’ runs, each others’ movements. Some players just get one and other, and Benzema and Hazard certainly seem to be among them. Their partnership seems natural, as if it comes easily to them.

If Real Madrid are to clinch the championship, dethroning Barcelona as the kings of Spanish football, it will likely be on the back of Benzema and Hazard’s relationship. Others are contributing, with Marco Asensio back from injury, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane forming a defensive wall at the back and Luka Modric back in form, but it’s the Belgian and the Frenchman at the head of the attack driving Los Blancos forward.

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Could Cristiano Ronaldo return to Real Madrid?

As often as it had been rumoured, few believed Cristiano Ronaldo would actually leave Real Madrid in the summer of 2018. Most thought the Portuguese forward was merely agitating for a new contract when towards the end of the 2017/18 season he started hinting that an exit from the Santiago Bernabeu could be in the offing.

Ronaldo wasn’t bluffing, though, and left the Spanish capital to sign for Juventus in what was, at the time, one of the most unexpected transfers of recent times. It appeared to be a good fit. Juve wanted a superstar who could help deliver them the Champions League and Ronaldo was a five-time winner of European club football’s biggest prize.

In Turin, though, Ronaldo’s levels have slipped. He is still a hardened goalscorer, scoring 44 goals over the last two seasons, but he feels somewhat peripheral at Juventus. At Real Madrid, he had an entire team built around him. They played to his every strength. He doesn’t have that luxury in Italy and it has manifested itself in a lot of detached performances.

This has led to some recent speculation that Ronaldo could end up back at Real Madrid. Juventus have been badly hit by the financial knock-on of the global coronavirus pandemic and might now have to rid their books of Ronaldo’s astronomical salary. And if Ronaldo is made to leave Italy the Santiago Bernabeu might be the best place for him.

The argument could be made that Los Blancos have moved on without the 35-year-old. Real Madrid are in good shape for the title at the top of La Liga, with Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard forging a partnership that has filled the void that was left by Ronaldo at the club. Zinedine Zidane has, finally, taken them forward.

And yet there remains a sense that Ronaldo was meant to stay at Real Madrid. It is the club of his greatest legacy, the club where he achieved the most. The more that passes, it becomes clearer that the Portuguese’s move to Juventus was an ill-judged mistake, even if he is to lift a second successive Scudetto this season. There could still be scope for him to correct that mistake, though. There might still be a place for him at the Santiago Bernabeu, both in Zidane’s team and in the hearts of the club’s fans.

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How will Achraf Hakimi fit in at Real Madrid next summer?

While the likes of Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard et al. have claimed the headlines for themselves since the resumption of the Spanish Liga season after the coronavirus hiatus, Real Madrid’s resurgence over the past few weeks has been built on a solid defence.

Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane’s centre back partnership is among the strongest in the European game right now, with Marcelo and Ferland Mendy rotating in and out of Zinedine Zidane’s starting lineup to great effect. And at right back Dani Carvajal has found fitness to become a reliable performance once again after some injury troubles.

Carvajal could have some competition for his place after the summer, though. Achraf Hakimi is set to return to the Santiago Bernabeu after two years on loan at Borussia Dortmund, with the Moroccan earning a reputation for himself as one of the brightest young players in the European game at this moment.

Hakimi is a formidable force down the right wing and having been given his first chance at Real Madrid by Zidane there’s reason to believe he will be given another chance in the Spanish capital next season. Along with the likes of Martin Odegaard and Takefusa Kubo, both of whom are also out on loan this season, Hakimi is seen as the future of Real Madrid.

Those who doubt that Zidane can satisfy both Hakimi and Carvajal in the same squad should look at how he has used Marcelo and Mendy. The latter is widely seen as Zidane’s first choice at left back, with the Frenchman quickly settling in following his transfer from Lyon last summer, but Marcelo has still proved his worth over the course of the campaign.

“We’ll see after the season,” Dortmund coach Lucien Favre said when asked whether Hakimi, as well as Jadon Sancho, will still be at the club beyond the summer. “Of course, players will leave. We hope the players will stay, but it is possible that players will leave. You have already mentioned two [Hakimi and Sancho] that we don’t definitely know about. Of course, they could stay with us, which would be very good for me. But we’ll see what we’ll do, whether it’s in defence, midfield or attack.”

Squad depth is something Real Madrid have over Barcelona and the return of Hakimi to the Santiago Bernabeu this summer could give them another advantage over their fiercest rivals. The Moroccan still has some work to do in order to refine his game, particularly in the defensive sense, but he is a player with great potential and it appears destined that he will fulfil that potential in the Spanish capital.

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Vinicius Junior proves once again why he is so valuable to Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane is no stranger to throwing in a curve ball with his team selections and the Real Madrid performed a familiar trick on Sunday by naming James Rodriguez to his starting lineup for the crucial away game at Real Sociedad. This was the same James who hadn’t started a game for Los Blancos since the defeat to Real Mallorca all the way back in October.

Such was the fuss made about the Colombian’s presence that not much was said about the call to rest Eden Hazard just days after he’d turned in his best performance as a Real Madrid player so far in the 3-0 win over Valencia. In his place, Vinicius Junior was trusted on the left side of attack.

There is no doubting the potential Vinicius possesses. It’s easy to forget the Brazilian winger is still only a teenager such has been the impression he has made on the Santiago Bernabeu over the last two seasons. But for all that Vinicius frustrates and still has a lot of refining to do to his game, he is extremely valuable to Los Blancos.

He proved this, not for the first time, in the 2-1 win over Real Sociedad that took Real Madrid to the top of La Liga for the first time since their Clasico win over Barcelona at the start of March. While the visitors to the Anoeta struggled to break down La Real for much of the match, Vinicius made things happen.

It was the Brazilian teenager who win the penalty kick that Sergio Ramos stroked home to send Real Madrid on their way. There is an unpredictability and sometimes a lack of control to Vinicius’ dribbling, but this is partly what makes him so difficult to defend against and why when he gets the ball something tends to happen.

With James and Karim Benzema generally unwilling to drive at the opposition defence, Vinicius attempted to run through them. This saw him dispossessed a number of times, and the Brazilian could still do with polishing his final product in the final third, but nobody else currently at the Santiago Bernabeu approaches the game like he does. He gives Zidane something different and that something different helped earn Real Madrid what could prove to be a season-defining result. A result that puts them on course for the Spanish title.

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Has Diego Simeone finally figured out how and where to use Marcos Llorente?

It could be that Atletico Madrid’s 5-0 win over Osasuna earlier in the week is looked back upon as a turning point in the career of Marcos Llorente. Lured from Real Madrid last summer, the addition of Llorente was deemed as quite a coup for Atleti. Llorente is a talented young midfielder who many see as one of Spanish football’s best hopes for the future.

And yet Diego Simeone didn’t seem to know what to do with the 25-year-old for the first two thirds of the season. Competition is currently stiff for midfield places in the Atletico Madrid squad and Llorente soon found himself down the pecking order behind the likes of Koke, Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey.

Something has changed, though. Simeone had some time to think about Llorente’s role in the Atleti team over the coronavirus shutdown and has subsequently deployed in a new position in the last two games. Used as more of an attacker than a midfielder, Llorente drove Atletico Madrid to two very important wins in back-to-back games.

Introduced off the bench for the final 30 minutes against Osasuna, Llorente scored and contributed two assists in a 5-0 win that represented Atletico Madrid’s best performance of the Liga season so far. And the 25-year-old followed it up with an impressive display in a win over Real Valladolid days later.

It would appear that Simeone has unlocked Llorente’s inherent creativity and invention by moving him higher up the pitch. While he has been previously used as a number six and a number eight, it’s as something closer to a number 10 that Llorente has finally found his place in the Atletico Madrid team.

This conversion could be a game-changer for Atletico Madrid as they attempt to rescue a difficult season. This season was always going to be one of transition for the capital club, with Simeone more than once referencing his desire to change Atleti’s style of play and identity as a whole.

Saturday’s win over Real Valladolid lifted them up to third place over Sevilla, significantly boosting their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League when just a few matches ago they had a lot of work to do. And if Atletico Madrid are to take their seat at European club football’s top table again it will be Llorente who has helped them do so.

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