Raphaël Varane's meniscus injury at the weekend added to the long list of disheartening Madrid moments this season. The young French phenom is unavailable for the Copa del Rey final and will likely be sidelined for another 4-6 weeks. The player underwent a successful operation on the knee today, and tweeted this:
Opération réalisée avec succès ! Successful knee surgery !Merci pour tous vos messages. Thanks for your... fb.me/1v8JjtoP1— Raphaël Varane (@varaneofficiel) May 14, 2013
The injury problems here are truly staggering. As mentioned, Varane is definitely out. Álvaro Arbeloa has been battling a back strain that kept him out against RCD Espanyol. That injury coupled with Mourinho ostracizing Pepe for post-match verbal dissent led to Varane being risked at the weekend in the first place. Marcelo can be counted out as he's battling back from an injury that disrupted his recovery from another. The biggest question, however, will be Sergio Ramos. He hasn't played since his heroic performance in the second leg of the UCL Semi-Final and has not been participating in full training, but rather in the recovery program. At the moment, Raúl Albiol and Ricardo Carvalho are the only fully fit center backs that Mourinho doesn't have in his dog house, unless you count Nacho as a center back option.
Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid are one of the top sides in Spain as far as having its possession in the final third. With inventive players like Arda Turan (coming off injury) and Koke likely to feature as the support for a striker pairing of Diego Costa and Radamel Falcao, positionally competent fullbacks will be important for Real Madrid. Both Turan and Koke usually feature as the wide midfielders in a 4-4-2, but tend to drift inside and take on more of playmaking roles. Turan and Diego Costa usually work the same side of the pitch and drag and interchange well.
With Arbeloa battling injury and the bison, Michael Essien, having already proven his positional competency from a right back position in the biggest matches this season, Essien seems a lock to start there, for me. His strength and grit would likely be valuable when dealing with the petulance of both Costa and Turan.
I expect Sergio Ramos to be able to feature alongside Raúl Albiol as the center back pairing. We can only wait and see if Mourinho is willing to reintroduce Pepe to the fold alongside Ramos, but I personally don't expect him to. If Ramos is unable, it's a proposition of having to include Pepe, Carvalho or Nacho. Carvalho's legs have been failing his sharp positional mind at an ever-increasing rate since his first season at Madrid. Nacho has improved and impressed in his time, but not likely to be trusted in as big a stage. As for left back, Fabio Coentrão remains the only true option.
Xabi Alonso has usually sat especially deep in the recent encounters with Atlético Madrid in order to block off service to Falcao. I expect the same on Friday. The Colombian can find the net against anyone (Chelsea fans shudder at the thought of Falcao running at their defense), so the Albiol-Ramos-Alonso triumvirate will have quite a task. The question is who will join Alonso in the double pivot. Sami Khedira has been steady there so long as the opposing side hasn't been able to sever off Alonso's attacking influence. If such is the case, Modric will likely be favored as the outlet to link defense and attack.
Real Madrid's attacking options won't be nearly as limited as its defensive ones. Mesut Özil is reportedly set to return for the final following his troubling ankle injury suffered against Real Valladolid on May 4th. Gabi and Mario Suárez will be the opposing double pivot charged with disrupting Real's counter.
In La Liga's first fixture featuring these two squads, Gabi and Suárez did well to do just that, but Özil still found the winning goal. In the second fixture (that only featured three Real starters from the UCL tie with Dortmund at the midweek), Ángel di María's wide presence was too much for Atlético to deal with. The full arsenal of Cristiano Ronaldo, di María, Özil and Karim Benzema should be enough to cause Atlético serious problems. While Diego Simeone's personality has injected a defensive fire to his side, it still hasn't been enough to overturn a putrid run of winlessness against big brother, Real Madrid. Which bring us to...
The Winless Streak
Atlético hasn't won against Real Madrid since the calendar has started reading 2000. We're thirteen years into the new millennium and los colchoneros have yet to win against Real Madrid. This is something tactics just can't account for. It's a psychological block unlike any other I've encountered since becoming a football fan. Whenever it seems certain Atlético will finally overcome (the very last encounter being primed perfectly for it), it just always fall through for them. Simeone's gotten his side to improve in many areas since becoming the manager, but this stain on the club's accomplishments has to be infuriating.
All streaks and records are meant to be broken. It has to end some time. For the love of all that is holy, let this streak not end on Friday. The thought of losing to Atlético for the first time in fourteen years in the Copa del Rey final in the Bernabéu to cap off a season in which La Liga was conceded in December and La Decima hopes crumbled at Dortmund would be massively disappointing. Here's to holding on to this streak just a little bit longer.
Madridistas, how would you like to see the team set up for the Copa del Rey final?