Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo will be back for Real Madrid this weekend when the champions of Europe engage themselves in battle against cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. Ronaldo returns to the line-up after serving his two-match suspension for using his hands and feet at an opponent player rather than at the football.
And in good time too, for Real lost one of their attacking stars in James Rodriguez through injury during their last league game, a 2-1 win over Sevilla. Rodriguez scored in that game, heading in a Marcelo cross, but had to soon depart with what was later revealed as a broken metatarsal (yup, that dreaded injury that has waylaid many a star player) and the early prognosis suggests a two-month spell on the sidelines for the Colombian.
While the BBC up front is back together for Real (Benzema, Bale and Cristiano for the uninitiated), Real go into tomorrow’s game with a hugely depleted squad. In addition to Rodriguez, the team’s defensive line isn’t in the best shape with injuries to Sergio Ramos and Marcelo with Fabio Coentrao also a major doubt.
Who’s going to suit up for these major absentees? Is it going to be a factor in tomorrow’s game, especially against a physical side like Atletico? We’ll have to wait and watch.
No breaks for Real’s stars
Carlo Ancelotti’s side have a four point lead over Barcelona at the top of La Liga and have recovered well since the end of their win streak at the hands of Valencia at the Mestalla.
Ancelotti has infused a fresh vibe at the Bernabeu after the rather tumultuous reign of one Jose Mourinho. Bruised egos, poor team morale, over-reliance on counter-attacking and jabs at the media (and opposing staff) have all been swept aside and there’s much to like and admire about Los Blancos these days. One thing that has stayed though from the Mourinho era is the lack of rotation.
This could be a major issue for Real and one wonders if it is going to come back to bite them come the end of the season.
In fashion similar to that of his predecessor, Ancelotti has shown a keen disinclination towards changing up his personnel on the pitch, sticking with a winning formula. It has not cost them, yet, but we could be getting to a stage where it begins to.
The frontline will likely take care of itself with Real having an embarrassment of riches in that area. Take into account the return of Jesé and there’s virtually nothing to worry about here. It’s the midfield and defence that could cause Real’s campaign on four fronts to stutter a bit.
Ancelotti has begun the process of rationing out minutes, but has found it harder in midfield where he’s been unable to give Toni Kroos a breather with the injury to Luka Modric and the lack of confidence in Asier Illaramendi. Sami Khedira’s case is a mystery with either injury or Ancelotti’s peeve rendering him irrelevant for much of the season so far and quite possibly its remainder too.
The same could be said for the back four. Ramos together with Raphael Varane, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer Real’s best bet, but injuries have meant that line-up has not taken the field often enough. Pepe remains inconsistent and liable to mental walkabouts while Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao don’t offer the same production as the starters. The rotation here has been forced, and has served to upset the continuity a bit.
Overall, Kroos is the minutes leader in the league for Real having played 1,826 minutes followed by Iker Casillas (1,710) and Marcelo (1,653). Ronaldo is fourth with 1,601 minutes for those curious. The Liga leaders have seven players who have clocked more than 1,500 minutes.
In comparison, Barcelona have only four - Lionel Messi (1,845), Jordi Alba (1,592) and Sergio Busquets (1,577) along with keeper Claudio Bravo; Atletico too have the same number, squad mantelpieces Diego Godin, Juanfran, Koke and Miguel Angel Moya being the ones.
Add to that the UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey minutes and Real’s rivals have clearly better managed squads in place.
Barca have chopped and changed with their midfield regularly with manager Luis Enrique shuffling with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Xavi as well as in defence using Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique and others.
Atletico’s Diego Simeone has learnt from last season, when his stars flamed out towards the end, that keeping a tab on player minutes is essential. He’s made the most of a bigger squad this time around.
It tells you that Real are putting out the same players to a much greater degree than their nearest rivals.
Chelsea paying the price too
Elsewhere, in England, a once seemingly unattainable 12-point lead evaporated rather quickly for Chelsea at the top of the Barclays Premier League, leaving them top merely on alphabetical order until recently. The lead is back to five now, but the Blues had a considerable wobble towards late December and early January.
We had spoken about how Mourinho and rotation weren’t exactly bedfellows. Chelsea’s lead has been chopped down to size partially due to this.
“It’s not difficult for me to leave players out. Everybody has to be ready to sacrifice for the team, to give everything for the team, not to be selfish”, Mourinho had said in an interview back in December.
Mourinho’s always had his ‘guys’, the ones whom he trusts above most others in a team. Even during the congested festive period, the Portuguese chose not to rotate and his team came out the worse for it dropping points and ceding ground at the top.
Then came the FA Cup shocker where his reserves somehow managed to let go of a 2-0 lead at home to lose 4-2 to Bradford City. Sure they were reserves, but we’re talking about Chelsea reserves here, most of them internationals.
Jose Mourinho was angry at the Blues’ FA Cup loss and was scathing in his post-match assessment saying, “Now you can see why I never rotate my team.”
He had made nine changes to his first-choice starting line-up that day.
He went on to add, “It is easy for you to understand now why I play almost every game with the same players. I don’t make many changes. I try to keep stability in the team. Maybe now you can understand a bit better why.”
The truth is Mourinho has a squad big enough and deep enough to give him more than enough room to manoeuvre. That was one of the shortfalls of last season that was addressed this time round. However, in failing to give them enough game time and match experience, his reserve lot were essentially high on reputation, but low on confidence. And when the tide turned against Bradford, they couldn’t manage the game.
Like with Real, Chelsea’s players have considerably more tread. Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry have played a massive 2,070 minutes in the league with Eden Hazard also clocking in excess of 2,000. The Blues have nine players who’ve played over 1,500 minutes. Chasing City have just five and Manchester United in third have only three.
Both Real and Chelsea have very expensive squads assembled with the precise intention of helping them mount sustainable challenges on multiple fronts. For varied reasons, Ancelotti and Mourinho have not taken full advantage of that luxury yet.
Even in home games against bottom of the table opposition, these managers haven’t been too keen to rotate, a trend that will have to be reversed to ensure that their respective teams suffer no more internally generated hiccups through the rest of the season.Published 07 Feb 2015, 12:32 IST