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Returning stars to give Madrid much-needed attacking boost

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Madrid are yet to be ruthless in front of goal under the stewardship of Rafa Benitez but with key men set to return there are reasons to be cheerful for Madridistas.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

"We should have killed off Sevilla in that first half, and we didn't. It's difficult to react at 3-1 down." Rafa Benitez suffered his first competitive loss since becoming Madrid coach in Andalusia on Sunday night and the Spaniard was quick to point out his side's failings at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.

Los Blancos led thanks to Sergio Ramos' splendid overhead kick, a goal that ensured he had scored in all 11 of his seasons in the Spanish capital since making the big-money move from the club he was facing, but the visitors failed to put the three points to bed on a difficult night in La Liga.

Madrid had bossed the opening half-an-hour and had the lead they deserved but Unai Emery's men were still in the game. This wasn't the Sevilla we had been used to in recent seasons, nor the Sevilla that saw off Barcelona 2-1 earlier this season. The hosts were sluggish, stood off Madrid and the game was there for the taking. As the clock passed 9pm Benitez and his coaching staff would surely have been surprised at how comfortable things were.

So were the players, by the looks of it. The league leaders were well on top and with Gareth Bale back in the starting eleven alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco in attack. The only thing that was missing was the second goal but it never came. The closest Madrid came was through back-up defender Nacho, who struck the post with a fierce drive just days after bagging the winner in a fortunate victory against Paris Saint Germain.

Madrid failed across the pitch on Sunday night but their defence has been solid in general. Keylor Navas, so superb throughout this season so far, was absent and so too was Marcelo, another of the team's performers of the season so far. Raphael Varane was rested, giving a rusty-looking Pepe a run-out before Ramos' injury set-back. Dani Carvajal is still returning to full fitness.

Benitez's back-four may have been in poor shape in Sevilla but the problems have come elsewhere this season. Although Los Blancos remain the league's highest scorers so far, with 26 goals, the feeling has been that the figure could have been more - and it should have been.

A 5-0 victory over Real Betis and thumping 6-0 success at Espanyol may have been well and good, but a slender 1-0 home win against Granada and 0-0 stalemate on home soil against Malaga left plenty of questions over the side's attack. A stalemate in Paris was acceptable but the side's failure against Emery's men has forced the spotlight back on the attack.

One finger was immediately pointed at Cristiano Ronaldo, and rightly so. A joke did the rounds on social media implying that it was nice of the Portuguese star to stop performing while his nemesis Lionel Messi was out injured and although Ronaldo has shone in some matches, his performances have been too far and few between. He has not put on the afterburners to make his advantage over his Barcelona counterpart count.

The former Manchester United man disappeared in Sevilla, as he has done in other matches this season. The club announced that their talisman was "unstoppable against Seville' in a story on their website just days before the match. Ten goals had come in his previous four outings against Sevilla, including a hat-trick in last season's crucial 3-2 away win. He didn't look like netting on on Sunday night and Madrid as a team suffered.

The abuse aimed at Benitez has been relentless. The Madrid-born coach's defensive reputation preceded him at the Santiago Bernabeu, rightly or wrongly, and fans have not been quick to question his style of play. The former Liverpool and Valencia coach was always gong to find it tough to win the fans over. While the team were winning and were top of the league he got away with it, but now that Barcelona have taken over at the top some have not been so forgiving.

Some of the criticism should rightly be placed at the coach's feet, where the buck stops, but with the risk of searching for excuses, the players in the treatment room have not helped the situation.

Indeed, Benitez has been able to field his ‘strongest' eleven on just one occasion so far this term and that resulted in the 5-0 demolition of Real Betis. Just a week later Espanyol suffered at the hands of Madrid and a five-star Ronaldo, who scored five times in a 6-0 win in Catalonia.

Since then, all of James Rodriguez, Bale and Karim Benzema have suffered injuries that have knocked Madrid's creative spark off cue. While Barcelona are getting along without Messi, the loss of three key players in attack so early in the season has hampered Madrid more than the Argentine's absence has hurt Luis Enrique's men.

All three players offer something different and something crucial to the Madrid attack. Bale adds raw pace and a long-distance eye for goal, James offers a more cultured left-foot and a creative eye, while Benzema provides the link-up play; not only that but goals - the Frenchman was in freescoring form before his own setback.

Benitez hoped to have all of those players back this week, and all ready to feature in the next Liga clash - El Clasico. James looks to be on course after making his goalscoring return in Sevilla, while Bale seemingly came through his return unscathed and Benitez will be keeping everything crossed that Benzema is fit and able to play in the big one. Isco, Jese and Lucas Vazquez have all shone at points so far this term but the absence of first-team regulars has been telling.

Throw Marcelo's absence into the mix against Sevilla and that is a key chunk of Madrid's attacking threat on the sidelines for one of their biggest matches of the season. If that attacking threat is back for THE biggest match of the season in just under a fortnight, it should be a very different Madrid team in display.