After the disappointment of the Clasico defeat, a positive for Real Madrid. Just 48 hours after Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suarez condemned Madrid to a defeat that left Carlo Ancelotti and his men four points adrift of Barcelona at the top of La Liga, James Rodriguez returned to first-team training six weeks after suffering a foot injury in the victory over Sevilla.
The Colombian joined up with the players who had not been called-up for international duty as Carlo Ancelotti took the first full session of the week at Valdebebas. Madrid may still be nursing their wounds from the Camp Nou setback but the return of James is a welcome one and the former Monaco and Porto man should have enough time to put himself in the frame for an outing against Granada at the Bernabeu on Sunday, April 5.
The sight of James back in training will be just the tonic for an under-pressure Ancelotti. His return will be a boost for Madrid on two fronts. To provide competition for a starting role and to add depth to a squad that was relatively light in options when changes were needed in Catalonia on Sunday night.
The Colombian's return is good news for Madrid but it remains to be seen if it will be good news for Gareth Bale. The Welshman has been under heavy criticism recently, especially due to his second-half disappearing act in the Clasico, and he will be the man under most pressure to make way for a player who has done well in his debut season in the Spanish capital. He has certainly not had the fans on his back.
A poll in AS this week revealed that almost 70 per cent of the website's users wanted Bale to be dropped from the first team and with James back in action he will be the player they call to replace the former Tottenham Hotspur man. He has largely played on the right-hand side of Madrid's midfield three and has also pushed further forward into Bale's position when the Welshman has been absent. If Ancelotti is to drop Bale, James seems the most natural replacement.
He seems the most natural replacement in an attacking three and he seems the most natural replacement in a midfield four, whether or not Ancelotti sticks to his guns with his 4-3-3 line-up that would see James push back into a midfield four when Madrid don't have the ball, or whether the Italian does tinker with his formation out of desperate at the ‘business end' of the campaign.
James has not only showcased his attacking abilities this season, arguably linking better with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in attack, but he has showed he has the work ethic to match. While Bale has trotted back to help out at the back, James, like Isco on the left, has been pro-active in helping Dani Carvajal out on the right and chipping in with some handy defensive work. It hasn't gone unnoticed with the fans.
In an attacking sense, the 23-year-old has chipped in with eight goals compared to Bale's 12 but he has produced seven assists to Bale's five, while playing five matches fewer than Madrid's record signing. His pass success rate is almost ten per cent higher than Bale's, at 87 per cent to 78 per cent.
Both are different players, offering their own qualities. Bale is a player who can exploit pace with his jet-heeled pace and surging burst downfield but he struggles when that space is not available, as he did when he was closed down by Barcelona in the second half on Sunday. James is a player not blessed with those raw bursts of speed but a player who adapts better to play in small spaces and who has a ‘cultured' left foot when curing inside from the right, rather than the power of Bale.
With games against Sevilla and Valencia to come, as well as the Champions League matches against Atletico Madrid, games in which space will not be afford, James may well provide a better attacking option to Bale if Ancelotti drops the guard of the ‘BBC' being un-droppable. James also has confidence at the moment, something severely lacking from Bale at the moment.
That Isco is suspended for Madrid's next match, against Granada, means Ancelotti probably won't have a selection headache in front of it. The Italian has rarely had a full complement of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Bale, James Rodriguez, Isco, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos at his disposal. Injuries and suspensions and helped make his mind up but now that embarrassment of riches could be available to him at the most crucial time.
Injuries-permitting, Isco's return from suspension will mean Ancelotti has to stick one of them on the bench, a rare luxury in recent weeks and one highlighted by the lack of options to change the game when Suarez fired Barcelona ahead on Sunday. Jese Rodriguez has not been the same since his return from a serious knee injury, although the argument can be made that he has not been afford a whole lot of time, while Javier Hernandez was a panic loan signing in which Ancelotti has little faith unless the match is already won or panic stations set in.
Ancelotti's first change at the Camp Nou was a defender for a defender and given his lack of game-changing options he had to bring the defensive-minded Lucas Silva on for the tired legs of a hard-working and not fully match fit Modric. It seems churlish for Madrid to moan given the mega-bucks spent on one of the most expensively-assembled squads in the history of the game but, relatively, a lack of changes from the bench did Madrid no favours at the weekend. In contrast, Barcelona introduced Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Rafinha and still had Pedro on the bench.
Whichever way you look at it, the return of James will only be a good thing for Madrid as they enter the final ten league matches of the season. As a fresh-legged starter, someone to put pressure on the under-performing Bale or as a quality change from the bench, Madrid should have more attacking verve for the remainder of the campaign.