Real Madrid now face defining stretch of their season

It was hardly a vintage Real Madrid performance, but Saturday’s 2-0 home win over Espanyol illustrated the momentum that Zinedine Zidane’s players have built up in recent weeks. They weren’t at their best and even looked vulnerable at times, but there was never any sense that points were about to be dropped, going top of La Liga until Barcelona’s match against Real Mallorca later the same day.

Real Madrid will need to be better over the coming weeks, though. With victory over Espanyol, they now face a defining stretch in their season. First up is the Champions League game against Club Brugge. That will be something of a dead rubber with Real Madrid already certain of their place in the last 16 and unable to catch Paris Saint-Germain in top spot, but what follows will have a lot more riding on it.

Zidane will take his side to the Mestalla next week. Despite Valencia’s recent struggles, it remains one of the toughest venues to visit in Spanish football and Zidane will be without both Marcelo and Ferland Mendy for that trip following the latter’s red card late on in the win over Espanyol.

After that Real Madrid will make the journey to the Camp Nou to take on Barcelona in the first Clasico of the season. Of course, these games often come with additional meaning attached, but there appears to be even more riding on this Clasico. It could set the tone for the rest of the season in La Liga, establishing a dynamic in the title race. It could be a watershed.

Then Real Madrid will take on Athletic Club at home in the final match before the winter break. It’s at that point that both Zidane’s team and Barcelona, as well as the rest of La Liga, will be assessed. It’s at this point that we will be able to make a solid judgement on who will prevail in the tightest La Liga title race for a number of years.

Real Madrid have done well to move past their vulnerabilities of the early part of the season and build a head of steam in recent weeks. But the issues of old may re-emerge if the period between now and Christmas goes badly. This may prove to be the most important stretch of their whole season.

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Real Madrid have momentum, but injuries present real test

On the face of things, Real Madrid are in good shape to face Barcelona in the first Clasico of the season in two weeks time. Zinedine Zidane’s side have gone eight games without defeat and have kept pace with their Catalans at the top of the Spanish Liga table. Some might even have them as title favourites on recent form, with Barca struggling somewhat.

Form isn’t Real Madrid’s most pressing problem right now, though. Injuries have been piling up in recent weeks. At current count, no fewer than 16 players are affected by some sort of knock or injury, with a number of key figures doubtful for that first Clasico of the season in the not so distant future.

Eden Hazard is perhaps Zidane’s biggest concern ahead of that match. The Belgian was expected to return from injury in time to face Barcelona, but has suffered another setback that could see him sidelined. Then there’s Gareth Bale who is also in a race against his own fitness to feature. Despite recent controversies, the Welshman remains one of Real Madrid’s most potent players.

Marcelo has joined Bale and Hazard in the treatment room. The Brazilian had found a good vein of form in recent weeks and so his absence is another blow to Real Madrid at such a critical time of the season, although Ferland Mendy will be able to slot in at left back. The Frenchman has also found his way of late following his summer move from Lyon.

Sergio Ramos is another who is doubtful for the league match against Barcelona, while centre back partner Raphael Varane similarly a concern. Dani Carvjal, Alphonse Areola, Alvaro Odriozola, Casemiro, Mariano Diaz and Vinicius Junior all have issues of their own, and there’s the long-term injury to Marco Asensio.

Karim Benzema could also miss the clash with Barcelona. This would leave Real Madrid without their top scorer and spiritual leader. Ramos might be the one with the captain’s armband, but it’s the French striker who is the dynamo through which their play flows. Without Benzema, Real Madrid often lack direction, not to mention cutting edge in the final third.

Real Madrid have built some momentum in recent weeks. Barcelona are not without their own problems right now and so Zidane and his players will surely be confident of victory in the first Clasico of the season. But it’s not quite clear what players will actually make the pitch.

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Christian Eriksen on a free might be tough for Real Madrid to turn down

By all accounts, he was on Real Madrid’s summer transfer shortlist, but ultimately it was decided that Christian Eriksen wouldn’t be worth the money Tottenham wanted for him. He was, after all, just one year away from becoming a free agent. The financially prudent thing to do was hold off and monitoring the Dane for another six months.

Those six months have just about passed, though, and Real Madrid must weight up whether or not they want to activate their long-standing interest in Eriksen. The 27-year-old will be free to talk to clubs when the January transfer window opens in just a few weeks with there no suggestion that the Dane will extend his Spurs contract.

Daniel Levy being Daniel Levy will surely attempt to draw a fee for Eriksen in January. It will, after all, be Spurs’ last chance to get some money for one of their best players. He will tout the Danish playmaker around Europe when the window opens. Eriksen, however, is in a position of power.

He’s in a similar situation to the one Aaron Ramsey was in at Arsenal last season. The Welshman rejected every contract put in front of him by the Gunners and ultimately got something of a dream move to Juventus as a free agent, signing a contract reported to be worth around £400,000-a-week.

One difference is in the way Eriksen has stagnated for Spurs in recent months. Ramsey remained a key figure for Arsenal right up until the day he walked out of the Emirates Stadium for Turin, but Eriksen has been a peripheral figure for Tottenham so far this season. Not even Mauricio Pochettino’s exit and Jose Mourinho’s arrival has changed his fortunes.

And so Real Madrid must weight up, and quickly, whether or not Eriksen would be revitalised by a new challenge. Or would he be just another Alexis Sanchez, unable to rediscover his form of old after falling into a mood of malaise? Has Eriksen’s decline of late been temporary or terminal?

Ultimately, it might be difficult for Real Madrid to turn down a player so talented on a free transfer. Eriksen would undoubtedly improve Zinedine Zidane’s squad. The Dane would be a useful player to have, but he might no longer be the ‘Galactico’ signing he was billed as not so long ago.

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Real Madrid growing into title race after shaky start to season

Had Real Madrid made the trip to the Basque Country to face Alaves even just a few weeks ago it’s likely they would have been dealt some sort of blow. Before the visit of Zinedine Zidane’s side on Saturday, Alaves had lost just one game at home (to Sevilla) all season long. They were in good form and fancied their chances of taking something from Real Madrid.

By full time, though, the capital club were celebrating a well-earned three points. The conditions at Mendizorrotza were atrocious, with heavy rain making the pitch a difficult surface to play on. This was the sort of game Real Madrid would have drawn or lost earlier in the season, but they are a different sort of group of players now.

Real Madrid have made real progress in recent weeks. The defeat to Real Mallorca at the end of October has proved to be a watershed for the club. Since then, the capital club have gone eight games without suffering defeat. They have played well over that spell, but they have also dug deep when required. It was required to claim the victory against Alaves on Saturday.

The result took Real Madrid to the top of La Liga and with Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid on Sunday night there’s a real chance that Zidane’s men will make that position stick beyond the weekend. This could prove to be a real turning point in their season.

While the malaise at Barcelona seems to grow with every match, with Ernesto Valverde coming under increasing pressure, Real Madrid are becoming more and more comfortable in their own skin. Zidane looked to be something of a dead man walking, in managerial terms, earlier in the season. Now, his squad appear to be fighting for him again.

Of course, there is a long way to go until the end of the season, but Real Madrid are more than playing their part in a title race that will surely witness many more twists and turns. They have absorbed a lot since the summer and look to be a better team and a stronger group of characters for it. That might serve them well as their contest with Barca at the top of La Liga goes down to the wire.

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Has Zinedine Zidane revived Isco as a force for Real Madrid?

The universal reaction to the release of Real Madrid’s team sheet for Tuesday’s Champions League clash against Paris Saint-Germain was one of surprise. Zinedine Zidane had settled on a consistent midfield three for a number of weeks before the crunch European fixture and Isco had not been a part of that. And yet the playmaker has given the nod against the French champions.

It was a tactical curveball from Zidane and Isco went on to vindicate his selection, playing well as Real Madrid drew 2-2. The playmaker was a constant thorn in PSG’s side and was inches away from opening the scoring for the hosts, hitting the post with a low shot before Karim Benzema converted the rebound.

For a long time, Isco has been a peripheral figure at Real Madrid. His natural talent cannot be doubted, but consistency has been a problem, as has fitness and match sharpness. Questions have also been asked of Isco’s defensive commitment. In recent years, he has been typecast as something of a luxury player, a luxury Real Madrid could do without.

There was a drive to Isco’s play against PSG, though. “He had a good match, with and without the ball,” Toni Kroos said afterwards. That latter part – “without the ball” – is telling and hints at what Zidane’s instructions to the playmaker were before the game. “He has worked hard and given us a lot, also with the ball,” Kroos continued. “Zidane does these things.”

Indeed, Zidane has done a good job of restoring a number of players previously deemed to be past their best. Kroos, for instance, has managed to find his best form again this season after being written off at the end of last season. Luka Modric has also benefited from a summer of rest.

Then there’s Karim Benzema, who at 31 just seems to be getting better and better and more and more important to Real Madrid. Even Marcelo, who looked finished towards the back end of last season, proved his worth in the game against PSG on Tuesday night. There is life in the old Brazilian full back yet.

Between the emergence of Fede Valverde and the re-emergence of Isco, Real Madrid’s midfield options have been bolstered since the summer, when their midfield seemed to be a real weakness. Isco might just have been given a second chance at the Santiago Bernabeu.

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Karim Benzema contract talk underlines his importance to Real Madrid

There was a time not so long ago when Karim Benzema’s time as a Real Madrid player looked as good as over. The Frenchman was given the now customary roasting by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd as they expressed their disgruntlement at the striker’s lack of edge in front of goal. It seemed likely Benzema would leave the Spanish capital sooner rather than later.

A lot has changed since then. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo age, it has been Benzema who become the face of Real Madrid. The Frenchman hasn’t quite stepped into the void vacated by his former Portuguese teammate (because who could really do that?), but he has upped his own levels to mitigate the blow.

In fact, Benzema has actually scored more goals for Real Madrid over the past two seasons than Ronaldo has for Juventus over the same time frame. It’s therefore unsurprising that the Spanish capital club are now reportedly looking to extend Benzema’s contract until 2023. He has quite simply become the most important player at the club.

Real Madrid’s hopes and dreams for this season are resting on Benzema. That isn’t exactly the best position to be in when the Frenchman has suffered more than a few injury problems over the years, but it is the reality of the situation for a team still transitioning between the Ronaldo age and a new generation.

Zinedine Zidane might now have Eden Hazard and Rodrygo, the teenage Brazilian who has taken Real Madrid by storm this season, but both players still require Benzema to play off. Luka Jovic was signed for around £60 million from Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer, but the Serbian has so far failed to show anything that suggests he can effectively deputise for Benzema.

Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are also better players when Benzema is on the pitch. The Frenchman is the dynamo through which Real Madrid play through. The drop off when he is not involved is drastic and so it’s understandable that they wish to tie him down for the foreseeable future even as he enters the twilight years of his career.

For a long time it seemed that Benzema would one day play in the Premier League. A move to Arsenal was a staple of the gossip column for a number of years, but Real Madrid have gone from being unsure of his place at the club to being unable to let him leave.

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Should Real Madrid return for Bruno Fernandes in January?

Paul Pogba was the central midfielder Zinedine Zidane wanted. The Real Madrid manager reportedly believed that the French midfielder would be delivered to him by Florentino Perez over the summer. When it became clear that Pogba would stay at Manchester United for at least another season Real Madrid shifted their aim.

Christian Eriksen was mentioned as a potential target, but in the final days of the summer transfer window Bruno Fernandes emerged as Real Madrid’s best option. The Portuguese midfielder had been linked with both Man Utd and Tottenham over the summer, but was left on the shelf as Premier League interest was overstated.

In the end, Fernandes’ proposed move to the Santiago Bernabeu never materialised, but there is talk that Real Madrid could return for him once the January transfer window opens. Would that be the right move, though? Is Fernandes what Zidane’s team needs at this moment?

While the start to the season was difficult for Real Madrid, they have started to find some form and consistency in recent weeks. Since losing to Real Mallorca before the last international break, they have gone unbeaten, winning four of five and keeping clean sheets in all five fixtures.

Their midfield has looked a lot better as well with Fede Valverde becoming a key figure over the past few weeks. Both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have upped their performance levels, but Zidane still seemingly wants another attacking midfielder and Fernandes could well fit the bill for him.

Fernandes has kept his form from last season going and then some. The 25-year-old has five goals and five assists in 10 league appearances this season as well as three goals and an assist in four Europa League games. The Portuguese international has actually improved on the standard he set for himself over the 2018/19 campaign.

Pogba might still be Real Madrid’s dream signing, with the Frenchman still believed to be unhappy at Old Trafford. It’s entirely possible that he will still make the move to the Spanish capital at one point, possibly at the end of the season, but Zidane might feel he needs someone sooner than that. In that case, he do a lot worse than Fernandes, a player who looks ready for the next step in his career. That next step could carry him to the Santiago Bernabeu.

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Gareth Bale must recapture his Wales enthusiasm at club level again

It’s no secret that Gareth Bale has found the last year or so at Real Madrid tough going. The Welsh winger has been made a scapegoat by sections of the Spanish press, criticising him for everything from playing golf to leaving the Santiago Bernabeu too quickly after games. It’s remarkable that he has put up with it this long.

Indeed, Bale was on the brink of finally leaving Real Madrid during the summer with the 30-year-old expected to make the move to the Chinese Super League. However, the deal fell through at the last moment and the Welshman still finds himself in the Spanish capital. His future has never been so unclear.

Bale has actually played well at times for Real Madrid this season, but a recent interview given ahead of Wales’ Euro 2020 qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Hungary revealed the depth of his unhappiness at the club. “I definitely have more excitement playing for Wales,” Bale said.

“I’ve been with most of the older players since we were in the under-17s. It’s like playing with your mates down the park on a Sunday. With Wales, I’m speaking my own language and feel more comfortable. But it doesn’t change what I do on the pitch. I always give 100% on the pitch wherever I am; that’s what I always strive to do.”

At 30 years old, Bale still has plenty more to offer. If he can stay injury-free, he might have another three to four years left at the top level. And yet Bale is wasting what remaining time he has as an elite player. He must seek to recapture the enthusiasm he has playing for Wales at club level.

That might involve finally leaving Real Madrid. The Spanish club have done all they can to push Bale out the door. So far, the Welshman has been reluctant to leave. By staying, though, Bale is only doing himself more damage. He needs a fresh start. He needs a new club where he will be harnessed.

Wales have got the best out of Bale in recent times. Like most players, the winger plays at his best when the environment he finds himself in is a healthy one. Real Madrid is a toxic environment for Bale. That doesn’t look like changing any time soon. If he enjoys himself more with Wales, he should like to find something similar in a new club.

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Casemiro is one of Zinedine Zidane’s favourites, but how healthy is that for Real Madrid?

With Real Madrid’s La Liga match against Leganes effectively decided in the first half, with the capital club 3-0 up at half time, Zinedine Zidane took the opportunity in the second half to rotate his team. Karim Benzema was given a rest, with Toni Kroos also withdrawn for the final half hour or so.

One player who stayed on the pitch was Casemiro. That shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. He always stays on the pitch. In fact, the Brazilian has become such a favourite of Zidane’s he has become a punchline. Along with Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro is mocked for being the teacher’s pet.

“I am here to play,” Casemiro said after the comfortable win over Leganes, responding to a question about Zidane’s decision not to take off the Brazilian. “The coach knows the minutes I have to play; I’m resting more when the matches end. We have a coaching staff that knows the moments [where] I have to rest. I’m in really good form, I’m really enjoying it and I want to play all the time.”

It’s certainly true that Real Madrid look a more structured team with Casemiro at the base of their midfield. In recent weeks, the Brazilian has forged a strong understanding with Fede Valverde, the young Uruguayan who has made quite the impression over the early part of the season.

That has left just one position for Kroos and Luka Modric. In a way, it has helped Zidane that both players have suffered from injuries of late, but the pair are close to regaining full fitness and so the Real Madrid boss might have a tough decision to make. Whatever decision he comes to, you can bet that Casemiro won’t be the one to miss out.

Casemiro has been one of Zidane’s most reliable performers over his two spells as Real Madrid manager and so it’s only natural that the Frenchman continues to show faith in the 27-year-old. But it’s not probably not so healthy for a team like Real Madrid, a team that plays so many games in a season, to be so reliant on a single figure. In isolation, Zidane’s refusal to give Casemiro a rest against Leganes mattered little, but it said a lot about how he sees the fragility of his side.

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Why does Sergio Ramos continue to hit Real Madrid’s penalties?

Real Madrid were 2-0 up and cruising when they were awarded a penalty kick against Leganes on Wednesday night. Rodrygo and Toni Kroos had already found the net and so this was a chance to further boost the confidence of one of their struggling players. Eden Hazard should have been the prime candidate. Instead, Sergio Ramos took it. And missed.

Ultimately, Ramos was given a second chance to convert from the spot after the VAR spotted that Juan Soriano had strayed off his line in making the save, but in having his first attempt saved the Real Madrid captain had already raised the question – why does he continue to hit his team’s penalties?

Ramos has held first refusal on most goalscoring set pieces since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in the summer of 2018, boosting the centre back’s numbers to a career high of six goals in La Liga over the course of last season. But Ramos isn’t an especially strong penalty taker and he certainly isn’t an expert freekick taker.

As captain, Ramos should have the self-awareness to recognise there are better candidates around him to take freekicks and penalties. By claiming them for himself, the defender is only acting out of selfishness and egotism. While it didn’t against Leganes, it could cost Real Madrid.

Ramos has always carried a goal threat. He is a potent presence in the box, getting on the end of freekick and corner kick deliveries. There are few as good as him at attacking a cross whipped right on top of the opposition goalkeeper. Ramos also knows how to act as an emergency striker when his team is desperately looking for a winner.

That is enough for a centre back. Ramos’ primary function on a football pitch isn’t to score goals, it’s to stop them from being scored against Real Madrid. Taking penalties and freekicks is only a distraction to Ramos and Real Madrid as a whole. As club captain, delegation should be among his duties.

It’s somewhat surprising that Zidane hasn’t handed penalty duties to someone like Karim Benzema over Ramos. Maybe Hazard will take more of them once he regains match sharpness, but such is the influence of Ramos in the Santiago Bernabeu dressing room it might not be easy to wrestle the ball off his captain.

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