Barcelona slump presents Real Madrid with an opportunity

It’s been a peculiar start to the 2019/20 season in Spain. Before a ball was kicked, predictions were made of a tight title race at the top of La Liga that would take many twists and turns over the course of the campaign. That has so far materialised, but not in the way most expected.

Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid have all suffered faltering starts to the season. Diego Simeone, Ernesto Valverde and Zinedine Zidane have all come under pressure and have all fielded questions over their ailing teams. Just one point separates the three sides at the top of La Liga, but that is a picture of their struggles so far rather than their strength.

This week, the picture is bleakest for Barcelona. The Catalans looked to be finally hitting their stride with five consecutive victories and Lionel Messi finding something close to his best form again, but that rise has been stunted by a shock defeat to Levante at the weekend followed by an insipid 0-0 draw at home to Slavia Prague in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Atletico Madrid are also toiling, winning just two of their last six fixtures in all competitions. Meanwhile, Real Madrid might well be the team in the best shape at this moment. They suffered a shock loss to Real Mallorca before the last international break, but have responded with wins over Galatasaray and Leganes, although the weekend’s draw at home to Real Betis was below-par.

Barcelona’s slump presents Real Madrid with an opportunity to really kick-start their season. Injuries have eased for the capital club in recent weeks and Zidane is now able to pick something close to his full-strength team. Karim Benzema is in goalscoring form, while there are signs that Eden Hazard is starting to grow accustomed to his new surroundings.

Real Madrid take on Galatasaray at home in the Champions League on Wednesday. A win is required after a poor start to their European campaign, but there would be a larger significance to three points for Los Merengues. It would show that they are starting to build something. They might be a long way from being the finished product, the finished article, but there is at least some signs of progress. The same can’t be said for Atletico Madrid and Barcelona right now.

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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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Vinicius Junior must be harnessed by Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid

Last season, he was pretty much the only reason to watch Real Madrid, at least for a period of the club’s 2018/19 campaign. Indeed, while the Santiago Bernabeu tried to quickly forget what happened last season, the emergence of Vinicius Junior was a bright point. It gave Real Madrid something to build on.

Vinicius almost single-handedly changed the tone around the Santiago Bernabeu after the sacking of Julen Lopetegui midway through the season. Until then, the teenage Brazilian had been kept at Castilla despite his obvious potential. It wasn’t until the appointment of Santiago Solari that Vinicius was unleashed and the impact he made was profound.

Since then, though, he has seemingly regressed. Injury ended Vinicius’ season early, but the Brazilian has struggled to pick up where he left off this season. Indeed, Zinedine Zidane has used the teenager sparingly. Vinicius has fallen down the pecking order even with Marco Asensio out injured for the long term and Gareth Bale still something of a scapegoat.

This was illustrated by the news that Vinicius has been left out of the matchday squad for Wednesday’s La Liga fixture against Leganes. As things stand, Zidane favours another teenage Brazilian, Rodrygo, with Lucas Vazquez, Isco and Luka Jovic also injured in the squad.

Vinicius has been a target for more criticism than most over the early part of Real Madrid’s season. Fans and pundits were afforded a glimpse of what the Brazilian can bring last season and they want more. But it is up to Zidane and Real Madrid to harness and protect the youngster.

Such was the impact made by Vinicius last season it’s easy to forget that he is still only 19-years-old. He still has a lot of growing to do, both as a person and a player. Sometimes, it seems that the teenager is trying to do too much and in this labouring he is losing the spontaneity that made him so potent before the summer.

Therefore it’s probably for the best that Zidane takes him out of the firing line for the time being. Real Madrid have the players to cope without him. The likes of Bale, Karim Benzema and Hazard can carry them in the final third. Vinicius remains a shimmering prospect for the future, but those around him must consider what is best for him in the present.

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Isco and James have been given a second chance at Real Madrid

Not so long ago, Isco and James Rodriguez seemed to be on their way out of the Santiago Bernabeu. The former found himself a peripheral figure while the latter was on loan at Bayern Munich with the Bavarians widely expected to make the deal for the Colombian playmaker permanent. Now, however, Real Madrid need the pair again.

Injuries to Toni Kroos and Luka Modric suffered over the international break have stretched the Real Madrid squad, particularly in the midfield. That has opened the door for Isco and James to make themselves key members of Zinedine Zidane’s team again. The Frenchman needs them to help fill the gaps starting with this weekend’s La Liga fixture away to Real Mallorca.

The pair will hope to evoke the spirit of the 2016/17 season when they both played an important role in leading Real Madrid to a Champions League and La Liga double. Many believe that only one of Isco or James can play in the same team. However, back then there was a place for both. They thrived and Real Madrid thrived on the back of that as a result.

Isco scored 11 times and contributed nine assists in all competitions over the course of the season while James found the back of the net 11 times and contributed 12 assists. At a time when the role of the playmaker is changing, these two were perhaps the purest manifestation of the position in the European game.

Real Madrid have struggled to find their groove over the early part of the season. A large part of the problem has been in their failure to strike the right balance in the final third of the pitch. In Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard they boast three of the most potent attackers in La Liga, but at times their supply line has been lacking. That certainly hasn’t helped Hazard find his feet in his new surroundings.

This is where Isco and James could make a real difference. Both players thrive on confidence and with injury ruling out Kroos and Modric for the time being this is an opportunity for them to find some heading into the winter months. Zidane won’t have welcomed these injuries to two key figures, but it could prove to be something of a watershed moment in their season.

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Not for the first time, injuries are a concern for Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane must rue the international break every time it comes around, every time his Real Madrid players jet around the world turning out for their countries. Almost invariably, a number of them return to the Santiago Bernabeu with some sort of injury or know. This week has been no different.

The international week has hit Real Madrid hard. Zidane’s side trained together on Thursday, but Raphael Varane and Thibaut Courtois both missed the session. Gareth Bale was also missing with the Welshman already ruled out of Real Madrid’s away trip to face Real Mallorca this weekend.

It was also reported that Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal also trained away from the main group after picking up knocks while Fede Valverde also worked on his own. Add these injuries to the ones already keeping Marco Asensio, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Nacho and Lucas Vazquez out of action and Zidane has something of a crisis on his hands.

Real Madrid’s season has been a paradox to this point. They currently sit top of La Liga, but that’s only as a result of the faltering performances of their rivals. Zidane’s side have been the best of a bad bunch, with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona both struggling for consistency over the early part of the campaign.

A series of poor performances have resulted in speculation around Zidane’s job security. A number of in-the-know journalists and media members believe Jose Mourinho has been lined up as the Frenchman’s replacement for whenever club president Florentino Perez decides to pull the trigger.

It’s with this foot on his throat that Zidane needs to instil consistency in his team over the next few weeks up until the next international break and up until Christmas after that. That will be much tougher with the number of injuries now being absorbed by Real Madrid. Zidane will have to come up with a number of solutions.

Real Madrid will be favourites for the away game at Real Mallorca this weekend. That was meant to be their warm-up for the first Clasico of the season, although that fixture is now in doubt following Barcelona’s statement on the arrests over the Catalan independence movement.

Nonetheless, this next stretch of fixtures will be crucial in determining the success or failure of Real Madrid’s season. Injuries, among other things, have held them back, but there’s no time to feel sorry for oneself. Zidane must find a way to make do with the squad he has.

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Brahim Diaz is back from injury and Real Madrid might need him immediately

Within just a few months of arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu, Brahim Diaz had played as many games for Real Madrid as he had in three years for Manchester City. The 20-year-old midfielder isn’t a Galactico and wasn’t given the usual ticker-tape reception upon his arrival in the Spanish capital. Signed for just €17 million in January, Brahim was meant to be one for the future, but he made an immediate impression.

The midfielder missed the vast majority of Real Madrid’s pre-season with a persistent hamstring injury and then suffered an abdominal strain just as he was getting close to a return in late August. Finally, however, it seems that Brahim will be an option for Zinedine Zidane again. The Frenchman might need him immediately.

Real Madrid’s midfield has been difficult to work out over the early part of the season. Their season as a whole to this point has defied deciphering. Zidane finds himself under intense pressure. It seems that just one more adverse result will be enough to force Florentino Perez to pull the trigger with Jose Mourinho reportedly waiting in the wings to take over at any time.

Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have all played well at points, but they have also suffered almighty dips in form. Fede Valverde has forced his way into the first team fold. The young Uruguayan has publicly made the point that he deserves even more game time, but he is the only player Zidane can bring into his midfield to freshen things up and rotate.

This is where Brahim might come in from this weekend. The 20-year-old caught the eye in the final games of last season, finding the net and notching an assist in the five starting appearances he made in La Liga. His drive and energy through the centre of the pitch could certainly be of use to Real Madrid at this moment. It could give the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard the supply line they need.

Brahim certainly isn’t the sole solution to Real Madrid’s problems. Despite the good first impression he made over the second half of last season, the 20-year-old is still one for the future, but he could help ease the logjam that has developed in Zidane’s midfield. He could bring something different.

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Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid future is once again a hot topic

It was all but signed. A deal was agreed between Real Madrid and Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning for the transfer of Gareth Bale following a very public saga. Zinedine Zidane was quite clearly doing his best to banish the Welsh winger from the Santiago Bernabeu dressing and China looked to be his only escape route.

Of course, the deal that would have seen Bale earn a staggering £1 million a week fell through and the 30-year-old was left stuck in the Spanish capital. From his point of view, this represented something of a victory. While Bale was understandably angry and frustrated at his treatment, he still wanted to play for Real Madrid.

The dynamic has shifted somewhat since then. Bale has forced his way back into the first team fold, once again becoming a key figure for Real Madrid over the first few weeks of the new season. Indeed, two goals and two assists from six La Liga appearances represents a decent haul.

But now it seems that Bale’s future in the Spanish capital is a hot topic again, with reports emerging that the Welshman now wants to leave Real Madrid. There’s no real suggestion of where he could end up, but now the situation has been flipped with Zidane keen to keep Bale and the player himself eager to leave.

“I think you play with a lot of emotion and anger comes into it of course, but I am just trying to play football, to enjoy it as much as I can and give my best, whether I am here or in Madrid,” Bale explained while on international duty with Wales this week. “Whenever I step onto the pitch I give 100% to help the team and I will continue to do that.”

But is Bale giving 100% to earn himself a move elsewhere or is he playing to keep his place at the Santiago Bernabeu? For the first time in a while, he is in a position of power. China was his only potential destination over the summer, but his early season form will have surely convinced some European suitors to make a move should he make himself available.

The latest twist of the saga concerning Bale’s future in Spain could see Real Madrid refuse to sell him just months after doing everything in their power to ensure he never set foot in their dressing room again.

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Why Real Madrid are getting better every week under Zinedine Zidane

For Real Madrid there will be enquiries into why their Champions League campaign has not started off on the front foot, but in the league everything seems to be taking shape, with coach Zinedine Zidane perhaps in the midst of his most difficult and testing season.

Last night Real could only draw with Belgian side Club Brugges at the Santiago Bernabeu which led to the inevitable boos, though in truth the match, which finished 2-2, would have felt like a small victory after the home side found themselves 2-0 down.

That match followed their first game in the group stages where they were easily beaten by PSG in Paris by 3-0. The defeat in Paris was probably overblown- a lot of very good teams are going to lose their this season, true the result wasn’t good but it wasn’t catastrophic either. What followed felt much more important.

So it was back to La Liga where Madrid had been making heavy weather of their results, to be fair eternal rivals Barcelona were too. But the fixture list did not look good for Zidane’s men. Following the PSG defeat they would have to play early front runners Sevilla away from home and also stay on the road to play the derby against Atletico Madrid, a side genuinely after the La Liga title this season.

Many thought that down south in Spain, Madrid would falter and yet they didn’t-they won and kept a clean sheet to boot. The final score reflected the closeness of the game with a 1-0 result, but that was still 3 massive points for Los Blancos.

The next match was set up as two genuine rivals for the league went head to head in Madrid, and that match ended 0-0 with the majority of the game being a midfield battle which became quite fascinating to watch. Eden Hazard in particular was given praise for getting physically stuck into the match. Hazard has arguably struggled this season for the club despite coming back from injury, but he should improve over time.

The draw at Atletico has suddenly put Madrid on top of the standings, albeit on goal difference and a top squeeze down to 5th place but still amongst all the criticism’s and the bla bla bla, Madrid under Zidane are top of the league and that is all that matters.

There will, of course, be more twists and turns and Madrid do not look like the polished finished article just yet. But with Gareth Bale to come back from injury and some emerging talent in the form of Rodrygo et all there is a lot of hope for Madrid. They need to steady that Champions League ship though.

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Should Zinedine Zidane give Alphonse Areola a chance?

There was a symbolism to Wednesday’s Champions League clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. These were two giants of the European game who have somewhat lost their way over the past year or so. Are there two more volatile footballing arenas than the Parc des Princes and Santiago Bernabeu right now?

There were subplots everywhere, but perhaps the most compelling one concerned the two mean in goals. Of course, until a few weeks ago Keylor Navas was a Real Madrid player. The Costa Rican won three Champions League titles during his time in the Spanish capital, but lost his starting place to Thibaut Courtois after the Belgian’s arrival last summer.

Navas was subsequently sold to PSG in the final few days of the summer transfer window and started against his former team on Wednesday night. The Costa Rican must have drawn great satisfaction from the clean sheet he kept and the emphatic 3-0 win he helped his team to.

On the flip side, Courtois looked shaky throughout. There were no glaring errors from the Belgian, but he might have done a little more to stop both of Angel di Maria’s two goals and looked unsure of himself from the first whistle until the last. This wasn’t an isolated case either. Courtois has been suspect for a number of months.

Courtois has now gone 15 games in all competitions without keeping a clean sheet. Real Madrid’s defence looked much steadier with Navas behind them, but that didn’t stop the Costa Rican from being cast aside. The suspicion is that Florentino Perez never saw Navas as befitting of a club of Real Madrid’s size and stature.

Alphonse Areola headed in the opposite direction to Navas in the summer window and so Zinedine Zidane does have another option between the sticks. Could Areola be given an early chance to prove himself at his new club? The poor form of Courtois might well be opening the door for the 26-year-old.

Despite being signed for over £30 million, Courtois has never really proved himself at Real Madrid. The Belgian certainly isn’t to blame for the issues his team have faced over the past year, but his influence at the back hasn’t done anything to help steady the ship. Zidane could be forgiven for looking at his new second choice goalkeeper and pondering if he might give him something Navas took when he left for France.

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Early season issues must be left behind by Real Madrid

Many expected Real Madrid to struggle early on this season after what was a tumultuous summer for the capital club. However, an impressive 3-1 away win over Celta Vigo on opening weekend suggested that things would all right after all. It didn’t take long for those suggestions to wash away.

Real Madrid have won just one of their first three fixtures of the new La Liga season. For context, Zinedine Zidane’s side are already five points off rivals Atletico Madrid at the top of the table. The problems of last season continue to afflict this group of players. On the basis of what we have seen so far, nothing has been solved over the summer.

Injuries have been a factor in this. Eden Hazard was Real Madrid’s marquee signing of the summer, joining from Chelsea for a deal worth around £100 million. However, the Belgian has yet to make the field for his new team, sidelined through injury as Real Madrid have struggled to find traction.

Ferland Mendy has only just returned to first team action, playing in the defeat to Villarreal before the international break. Luka Jovic, a big money sining from Eintracht Frankfurt, has so far struggled to find a place in Zidane’s team, with some even speculating that the Serbian striker’s stay at the Santiago Bernabeu could be a short one.

On top of this, Eder Militao has yet to make his Real Madrid debut, with Sergio Ramos and Nacho Fernandez both suspended for the Champions League opener away to Paris Saint-Germain next week. Teenage forward Rodrygo has also been denied his first team bow up to this stage.

Perhaps it’s wise that Zidane has, by design or not, phased in Real Madrid’s squad overhaul, but results have been disappointing over the early part of the season and the capital club must hit the ground running when they return from the international break. They don’t have any more time to waste, especially with Atletico Madrid enjoying such a strong start to the season.

The Santiago Bernabeu is not a happy place right now. Only Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have found anything close to their top form in the first three Liga games of the season. This season was meant to be one of change. They can’t hold off that change any longer.

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