It's that time of year, that magical moment when we finally get to stop talking about nonsense and get down to the basic act of playing (and reporting about) soccer. Real Madrid will take on Zaragoza in La Romareda (Zaragoza) this Sunday at 20:00 CET (2:00 PM EST), and will be looking to take three points off of a rival that, well, has fallen on some hard times. If the match is televised (I've heard nothing today about this), then it will be broadcast on Canal+ in Spain, and GolTV (I believe) in the United States.
Gone are the days when Zaragoza boasted the likes of players such as Diego Milito; gone are the days when Madrid felt lucky to eek out a 2-2 draw (this is my second 2007 Liga reference in two columns about this match). Last season los blancos manhandled the Aragonese side away in the first half of the season (1-3), but then lost (2-3) after the Liga was already over in late April thanks, in part, to a shockingly bad mistake from Iker Casillas.
I suppose I'm not giving enough credit to Zaragoza: Lafita, for example, is a strong player, as are Ikechukwu Uche and Javi Paredes. But they're not a team that should give madridistas nightmares (hello, Deportivo la Coruña).So what should we expect from Madrid? Well, more of the same, really. Karim Benzema has been fantastic all preseason, and he managed to score in the Supercopa and in the Trofeo Santiago Bernabéu game against Galatasaray; Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to get off to a strong start, I'm sure, so he'll probably take some ridiculous shots. Oh, and Ángel di María scored a phenomenal goal last time Madrid played Zaragoza, and he'd like to solidify his starting role as well.
Unfortunately, Sami Khedira, Nuri Sahin and Esteban Granero are all injured, so we should expect to see Fabio Coentrão start next to Xabi Alonso in the double pivot in midfield (much like he did throughout the preseason). This should see Marcelo slot into the left back role, with Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho in the center of the defense, and Sergio Ramos out wide. No shocks there, though Mourinho has been giving the defenders extra attention recently because they allowed way too many goals during preseason play for his liking.
The only question marks in the offense are whether Mesut Özil will be physically fit to play (he was called up by Germany for a friendly), and whether Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuaín will start up top--though this last part isn't really a question, because Karim has been on an absolute tear, while Higuaín seems to have lost some of his pace and poise in front of goal. I have no doubt the young Argentine will rebound, but he definitely doesn't deserve to be in the starting lineup yet.
Key to the Match: Real Madrid's defense. If they don't allow any stupid goals, then we can put some of our fears to rest about their performance (it was preseason after all, and five of their goals came against Barcelona).
Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo. When he goes a few games without scoring (as he has right now), then he gets nervous and selfish. If he can calm down and play the game with his teammates (instead of against them), then Madrid will be in prime position to win.