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Time to freshen things up for Ancelotti

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With players returning from injury and some more comfortable-looking games coming up, Clasico aside, it's time for the Madrid manager to give a long-awaited rest to some of his star names.

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

How quickly things can change in football. Before Christmas, with Real Madrid at La Liga's summit and Barcelona trailing in their wake, Carlo Ancelotti was being hailed and Luis Enrique was being lambasted. One was king of the world and the other a sitting duck.

Madrid were on a Spanish-record winning run thanks to a largely unchanged starting eleven, one which was tinkered with only due to injuries, while the knives were out for Luis Enrique, a man who was bamboozling even the most staunch Barcelona fan with his rotations that seemingly had little rhyme or reason.

Fast forward three months and the roles have reversed. Luis Enrique is the one being hailed, in a roundabout way, for guiding his men back to the top of La Liga, the final of the Copa del Rey and seemingly into the last eight of the Champions League. Madrid have lost ground, statistically and mentally, and Ancelotti is the man being blamed for his failure to sufficiently rotate the legs of his tired team.

The Italian has brushed aside fears that his men are not with it physically. Madrid have endured plenty of poor performances since the turn of the year but the physical shape of the European champions has not been brought into question by their coach. After Saturday's defeat at Athletic Bilbao Ancelotti put the blame at the feet of his attackers and ultimately blamed himself. "The problem is not a physical one but the clarity of our attacking game," he said at San Mames.

Those changes by Luis Enrique seem to be paying dividends at the moment thanks to his side's current rampant form, while a failure for Ancelotti to rest key man has resulted in a dip in form - if you can call a dip three months. As both managers keep saying, the season is long - so why has the Italian stubbornly stuck to his guns on refusing to sufficiently rotate his squad?

In the Basque Country the evidence was there for all to see. While the ‘BBC', who admittedly had little impact in attack, bore the brunt of the criticism, players such as Toni Kroos looked energy-sapped in the middle. This despite Madrid having a free week to prepare for the match while Athletic slugged their way to a Copa del Rey semi-final success just three days before.

Just a week before Madrid also looked sluggish against Villarreal as they dropped more points against a Yellow Submarines side with plenty of changes from an arduous Europa League match just days before. Madrid were not at the races in either match.

Their full week of preparation should have helped but the physical problems stem back much further than that. Kroos, one of those who suffered at San Mames, complained of tiredness before Christmas but he has hardly been rested The same can be said of plenty of his team-mates. The business end of the campaign is fast approaching and Madrid need fresh legs then more than at any other point in the season.

The changes Ancelotti has made to his team have been forced for the most part. Injuries, although unwanted, have helped the Madrid coach pick his team. Instead of having Isco on the bench, as he was at the start of the season, injuries to Luka Modric and now James Rodriguez have handed him a starting role. Set-backs to Pepe and more recently Sergio Ramos have given Raphael Varane match action.

Rare have been the occasions when Ancelotti has changed his team to rest his stars. Karim Benzema was left out of the Champions League game to give Javier Hernandez time on the pitch at Ludogorets before coming off the bench to score the winner, while Keylor Navas has deputised for Iker Casillas on a few occasions. Those switches seemed to suit giving back-up players minutes in comfortable-looking matches rather than resting the legs of key starters, however.

Those injuries to big players may also be a reason the former Paris St Germain, Chelsea and AC Milan boss has not rotated things freely in his squad but Ancelotti has not showed signs of being a big fan of rotating before. Now, with Madrid losing five points in one week on their title rivals, the Italian will be under pressure to freshen things up.

The return of Luka Modric against Schalke will bring one possibility, while Sergio Ramos also returned to training on Sunday. Tuesday's Champions League match may come too soon for the defender but Ramos could be involved when Levante visit the Santiago Bernabeu next Sunday. James Rodriguez is further away but will also add further options before the end of the campaign.

Fitness aside, Madrid's failure to rotate can have another detrimental impact on their performances. Despite the sluggish performances and despite the dropped points, Ancelotti's rigid faith in his most regular starting eleven could leave some players feeling as if they are untouchable in the starting line-up. The kind of starting guarantees have already been handed to the ‘BBC' and Isco and that has spread to the rest of the team.

With the games set to come think and fast in the league and Champions League Ancelotti needs to make full use of his squad to ensure they are not exhausted when it matters most. Barcelona may be coming up in a fortnight but the four matches around El Clasico are against Levante, Granaa, Rayo and Elche. With respect to the quartet, it may be an ideal period for Ancelotti to bite the bullet and freshen things up.