Priorities on the field at the moment are making sure that the team continue the winning run with another victory at Ludogorets in midweek and more importantly follow that up with another three points away to Almeria next weekend. Additionally, the forthcoming FIFA World Club Champions Cup in Morocco will provide another test for Carlo Ancelloti's squad. Despite being favourites, the extra games squeezed into an already-busy calendar will further test the resolve of the team and test the depth of the squad. Interchangability will be key factor in this respect if anyone picks up injuries along the way.
Off the field, the priorities will lie as always with getting the injured players back to full fitness and on the pitch with the minimum of delays. There's been a fair amount of injuries this season with Gareth Bale, Fabio Contreau, and Dani Carvajal all having missed important games in addition to the main duo in the spotlight at the moment of Luka Modric and Jese Rodrigues who returned last week against Cornella. In Jese's case, it was decided to make sure that he eased himself in gradually, since it was acknowledged that having been out for such a long time he would need a bit of time to adjust once again to the pace of first-team football.
Everybody thinks that it's easy to just step out on to the field and pick up where you left off, but even though the injury itself may have resolved, it can be more difficult to find the same match form after a spell on the sidelines compared to before the injury occurred. How often have we heard a manager say that somebody "doesn't quite look match-fit yet" or "needs a few more games under his belt?" Often when returning from injury the problem can be in the actual football sense as opposed to the injury that led to the enforced absence in the first place.
When players are returning from injury, especially from longer-term injuries such as Jese's, it's important to be able to ease into playing again in the right way. Players need time to adjust to the dynamics of the game after a period of injury. That Jese was able to play against Cornella and then not be involved in the Celta Vigo match will have meant that he was able to regain some of the sharpness that only comes with playing games and yet allow adequate time for recovery. It's easy to play in training matches at practice sessions but the competitive edge that only comes when turning out against proper opposition as opposed your own team mates will always be missing in training games. Nobody wants to be the player that set a team-mate's recovery back by a few weeks with a wild tackle; but players from opposing clubs will have no such hesitation in making full-blooded challenges and particularly when playing against Real Madrid. At that level, it's not possible to carry an injury through ninety minutes therefore players returning from injury need to make sure that their game senses and reactions are as good as they should be in order to avoid further injury and also to keep pace with the game. It usually takes a couple of games against higher standard opposition to spark those reactions and any player returning from injury will say that it is the pace of the game that is the most difficult aspect to adjust to once again, especially after a long period out of action.
In the later stages of injury rehabilitation a lot of the exercises performed in training will be football-related in addition to fitness based. In the early stages of injury the focus is on assisting the healing process but in the later stages the emphasis will be on fitness; and in particular, football fitness. By the time a player is close to returning to the team his training will be focussed on the specific aspects of football such as sprinting, turning etc and most of the work will be geared towards game-related scenarios. The actual injury itself will be healed; but it will be the ‘fine-tuning' that requires attention. The emphasis will be on regaining the pace and sharpness needed to compete at such a high level and to be able to maintain this.
The longer the injury break, therefore, the more fine-tuning that will be required before returning to play. With James Rodriguez sustaining a calf muscle injury on Saturday night against Celta, the forthcoming fixtures involving domestic, European and world competitions will be uppermost in the minds of Ancelloti and his staff. There are a lot of matches to be played between now and the end of the season. James was clear at the time that he needed to come off, signalling to the bench straight away to arrange a substitution. To try to bring him back to play too soon could result in failure to make a proper recovery and thereby leading to a recurrence of injury and a longer spell on the sidelines than perhaps originally anticipated.