Real Madrid plays host to a strong-willed and physically intense Levante side tonight in the Santiago Bernabéu, and while Levante might not be FC Barcelona, they do share two important characteristics with Pep Guardiola's boys: they both wear red and blue, and they both have taken points off Madrid this season. With that--and the possibility of a ten-point, seemingly insurmountable la Liga lead--in mind, I want to remind you all of another Star Wars moment (I know, I'm a geek), that inimitable shot of Han Solo screaming "Great kid...don't get cocky!"
That's going to be the struggle for Madrid heading into tonight's game (21:45 CET, 3:45PM EST): they will be tempted to think of themselves as already possessing a 10-point la Liga lead. They will look down the road, to games in April, March, maybe to their upcoming Champion's League match against CSKA Moscow. They might fantasize about riding down to the Cibeles with the adoring throngs surrounding their bus; they might think about hoisting that trophy up on top of the goddess's head, of giving her a kiss on the cheek while the thousands of fans scream (it is a pretty image). But this is precisely the type of thinking Madrid is going to have to avoid if they're going to capitalize on their monumental opportunity. There will be plenty of time for daydreaming after they take care of business.Before we can get too ahead of ourselves--and before we can truly be excited about Barcelona's magnificent flop against Osasuna--los blancos need to get past a hyper-physical Levante defense. Anchored by centerbacks Gustavo Cabral and Sergio Ballesteros (both of whom are having amazing seasons to date), Levante's strength comes in their physicality, and ability to avoid serious punishment while doling out devastating hits. Their central defensive midfield pairing of Iborra and Farinós has been one of the staunchest in the league, hammering opposing attackers yet receiving a comparatively low number of cards: seven yellow cards total (Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira have eight yellow and one red card between them). Levante's defense might actually be strongest on the wings: with ex-super-back Asier Del Horno on the left playing like it's 2006 again, and Javi Venta on the right having his best professional season, there's a lot to like in the Levante defense.
But, all things being equal, they should pose little problem to Real Madrid. Overall, the talent level is hugely different between the two sides (as it is between Real Madrid and nearly every top-level club in the world), and José Mourinho does not like to lose to the same team twice. Plus, we can only imagine how much the Bernabéu will help the boys in white: I'm sure the madridistas in the stands will want the victory as much as the players.
So how will ol' José approach the match? Well, all things being equal, I think he'll want to treat this match as if it were a final (because really, it almost is). I expect a full-strength Real Madrid side, featuring just-recovered Sami Khedira in a midfield pivot with Xabi Alonso, a four-man attack of Kaká, Mesut Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema (though Gonzalo Higuaín might grab the starting nod). If this group fails to provide the desired result (at least a one goal advantage through 45 minutes), Mr. Mourinho will probably look to insert whichever forward doesn't start, Angel Di Maria, who was recently declared fit to play, and possibly Nuri Sahin, who has finally begun to overcome the psychological effects of a long, serious injury.
Madrid has a devastating attack (just look at the names of the players on the bench at any given moment); and they'll need all of it to get past Levante's physical defense. Madrid's form so far has been impeccable, and with Barcelona stumbling again away from the Nou Camp, things seem to be lining up for the boys in white. But before they can really celebrate they need to dispatch the only other team to beat them this year.
Great kid, don't get cocky.