Battered and broken, Real Madrid succumbed to a 2-1 defeat at Real Betis in March, surrendering their slender advantage at the top of the league table. 64 days later, they are getting the opportunity to bounce back and return to winning ways against an out-of-sorts Eibar side.
A lot has changed since that mid-March fixture.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged our world, plaguing almost every country on earth. The definitions of work, play, and worship have been re-written.
The world’s sport, football, too, has become a shell of its glorious self.
Without the fans cheering and jeering from the stands, the game has practically lost the feel of home and away fixtures.
Technology has lent a helping hand with artificial crowd noises, but that’s hardly comparable to the real thing.
Yes, it’s not ideal, and it’s hardly the football we know and love, but the show, as they say, must go on.
So, with managed expectations and understated excitement, let’s take a look at three things to expect from Real Madrid’s first post-COVID-19 encounter.
Gareth Bale’s shot at redemption
When Gareth Bale left Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, he was touted to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s ideal successor at Real Madrid.
He had the pace, the hunger, and that invaluable eye for goal.
Over the last seven seasons, he has won every single trophy for the Whites, but the impact hasn’t been up to the mark.
Following Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus in the summer of 2018, Bale had the perfect chance to hog the limelight, be the star of the show.
However, due to niggling injury concerns and inconsistent performances, he’s once again slipped down the pecking order.
Real Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane, has often preferred Isco ahead of the Welshman, which has taken a toll on the winger’s confidence.
He still has the ability, of course, but the decisiveness is still nowhere to be found.
Against 16th-placed Eibar, Real Madrid should have more leeway, which could prompt Zidane to be a little more adventurous with his selection.
And Bale, who is reportedly one of the fittest players of the squad currently, needs the Frenchman to trust his abilities and give him a fair shot.
A goal or even and assist would give his morale a massive boost, and it won’t hurt Real Madrid to have an in-form Bale at their disposal for the remainder of the campaign.
Zidane’s midfield selection
Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Fede Valverde, Isco, and James Rodrigues — any coach in the world would feel lucky to have such a gifted roster of superstars at their disposal.
For Zidane, however, it’s nothing more than a massive selection dilemma.
The three-time Champions League-winning coach banked on the tried-and-tested trio of Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro to make Real Madrid the undisputed kings of Europe.
Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option anymore, especially with such a tight schedule.
Luka Modric, 34, isn’t as resilient as he used to be. He’s still excellent on the ball, of course, but he can’t breathlessly run for 90 minutes anymore.
His midfield partner, Toni Kroos, still has age on his side, but even he can’t perform up to the mark every three days without picking up an injury.
The third piece of the legendary trio, Casemiro, may very well be the fittest of the group, but he needs more protection than anyone. Being the only defensive midfielder of the team, Casemiro is forced to take part in almost every match.
The Brazilian isn’t injury-prone, but fatigue can eventually take a toll on any player, even the strongest.
Fede Valverde is the only player who can easily fill in for any of the three players.
And going by Zidane’s recent selections, he’s even likely to start against Eibar on Sunday. But that still leaves two more slots to rotate and two more players to use.
Neither Isco nor Rodriguez is capable of owning the central midfield position, which is why Zidane would probably need to tweak his entire system to accommodate them.
The Frenchman used both attacking-midfielders excellently during Real Madrid’s La Liga-winning campaign in 2016-17, and it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with this time around.
Eden Hazard’s return
Real Madrid number 7 has been declared fit to play and is in contention to feature in Sunday’s clash at home against Eibar.
The Belgium international fractured his right fibula in the defeat against Levante in February, which eventually led to a successful surgery in Dallas.
Under regular circumstances, the player probably wouldn’t have featured for the Whites this season.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and unexpectedly fast recovery have handed the 29-year-old the chance to redeem his debut campaign at Real Madrid.
Battling with injuries, Hazard has only taken part in 10 La Liga fixtures this season, amassing one goal and two assists — a disappointing return for a player of his calibre.
The former Chelsea star, who has reportedly been very impressive in training matches, will get the opportunity to redeem himself in the next 11 fixtures, and he must mark his return with a convincing performance against Eibar, on Sunday.
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