It's kind of hard to put this past weekend's result versus Barcelona in the rearview mirror, but here we are. It has to be done because qualifying for the Champions League round of 16 as a first seed still needs to be accomplished and taking that step starts tomorrow on the road versus a pretty strong Shakhtar side.
Shakhtar, unlike Real Madrid, is on bit of a roll both domestically and in the Champions League sitting in first and third place in the competitions, respectively.. They've won their last five matches by a combined 22-3 score, including a 4-0 win versus Malmo in the Champions League and a 7-1 pasting of Zorya in the domestic league. On the season, they're averaging 2.93 goals scored and .71 conceded. However, the average time for their first goal this season has been the 31st minute so an argument could be made that they're slow starters, something that Madrid needs to capitalize on in order to put this game away as early as possible.
Shakhtar has a number of solid players with some name recognition, but the undoubted star this season has been Alex Teixeira, a man linked to both Real Madrid and Chelsea. Teixeira is a nimble, pacey midfielder who has 21 goals in 22 games across all competitions this season, including 19 in only 13 league games. Though there will be other players to keep an eye on, Teixeira is the clear number one priority for Benitez's defenders.
Injury-wise, Shakhtar will be without captain Dario Darijo Srna and Oleksandr Kucher in the back line so keep an eye on how well Shakhtar is able to curtail the visitors' attack. Midfielder Maksym Malyshev is also doubtful.
As far as Real Madrid, it's unclear as to what kind of lineup Benitez will field. He could go all out aggressive in order to try and secure top spot in the group, but some tinkering, both in terms of starters and shape, could also be on the books as the lineup this past weekend was incredibly underwhelming. Players such as Mateo Kovacic and Lucas Vazquez could provide that industrious effort that's needed on the road in the Champions League setting, so perhaps one of them could find his way into the starting XI if Benitez wants to give players like Toni Kroos or Gareth Bale a sitdown instead of a start. Also important to see if Rafa will play Casemiro in his more preferred defensive XI or if he'll take a risk with a high-powered offensive XI.
On an injury front, Marcelo is ruled out for a couple weeks so one of Nacho, Danilo or Dani Carvajal will look to fill in for the Brazilian's massive shoes, while Pepe will step in for Sergio Ramos as the latter's shoulder recovers.
Shakhtar Donetsk possible XI: Pyatov; Shevchuk, Ordets, Rakitskiy, Azevedo; Fred, Stepanenko; Marlos, Teixeira, Taison; Gladkiy.
Real Madrid possible XI: Navas; Danilo, Pepe, Varane, Nacho; Modric, Casemiro; Bale, Rodriguez, Ronaldo; Benzema.
Prediction: It could be closer than most fans would like, but Madrid's offense simply has too much talent to drop this one. 2-1 to the visitors.