The 15 days were always going to be difficult for Zinedine Zidane. On Saturday he faces high-flying Villarreal away. Inter away comes just four days later. Alaves at home should then be more straightforward (although they have already drawn with Barcelona) but then it’s Shakthar and Sevilla away.
A tough two weeks could turn into a frightening fortnight, however, if his weakened squad fails to rise to the challenge. The Real Madrid coach knows he must do it without his talismanic captain Sergio Ramos for at least three of those games. His hugely influential and on-form midfielder Fede Valverde is also out. And there is a doubt over Raphael Varane.
Casemiro, Eden Hazard, Militao, Dani Carvajal and Nacho are all back from coronavirus positives or injuries but how match fit they will be is open to question.
The gaping hole left in the middle of Real Madrid’s defence by the hamstring injury to Ramos is the biggest problem.
Zidane will round up the recovering and the walking wounded in the Friday afternoon training session with a particular interest in how Varane’s shoulder responds to a light workout. Varane is shaky without Ramos but a defence without the Frenchman AND Ramos does not bear thinking about.
Real Madrid have lost in seven of their last eight Champions League games without Ramos in the team. The heavy defeat by Ajax in the 2018-19 season stands out as does last season’s reverse away to Manchester City and this season’s home loss to Shakhtar.
Nacho will have to partner Militao if Varane’s shoulder cannot take the strain or if Zidane believes it makes more sense to have Varane 100 per cent for Inter because the league position is repairable but the Champions League status less so. The club do not want to find themselves in the Europa League.
Nacho was once Mr Reliable at Madrid filling in at centre back or full back and never letting Zidane down. But seasons of scarce first-team minutes have taken their toll. He has played just 223 minutes this season before hobbling out of the Clasico in the first half with a hamstring injury.
Militao has not trained with his team-mates for the last two weeks after testing positive for coronavirus. He was not in great form before that playing his part in the home debacle against Cadiz, the loss which came directly after the last international break.
He is still only 22 and no one at Madrid doubts his potential but he is yet to make the step-up. He might need to on Saturday because he might have to boss a defence that could include Nacho, and Dani Carvajal only just back from injury.
If the glass is half empty at one end of the pitch, at the other he might be seeing it as half full. Hazard is back. He has been away from his team-mates self isolating for two weeks but he is fit to start against Villarreal.
Luka Jovic could have been given a rare start by Zidane but the striker was ruled out of the clash after testing positive for coronavirus.
The Serbian scored three goals and an assist in three internationals but he has only played 208 minutes so far and now he will have to wait for another opportunity.
With Karim Benzema still nursing a tweaked muscle sustained in Madrid’s defeat by Valencia, and with the Inter game, the be all and end all right now, Hazard, Marco Asensio and Vinicius are likely to form the front three.
Martin Odegaard will also be available if the club decide that his period of self isolation has been sufficient.
He returned from the Norway squad last Sunday after their meeting with Romania was called off because of Omar Elabdellaoui’s coronavirus positive.
With Odegaard and Hazard back, plus Rodrygo, Vinicius, Asensio and potentially Benzema, all available, Madrid have the firepower to cause Unai Emery’s Villarreal problems.
Zidane just needs to find a way of making sure Villarreal prolific front two of Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer – who have between them scored 13 of the 25 goals Villarreal have scored so far this season – don’t do too much damage to his team.
He does not want to go into the must-win match with Inter Milan off the back of another league defeat.
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