Only a fortnight ago, Carlo Ancelotti enjoyed the rare luxury of having his full squad together on the training pitch. Injuries to Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and James Rodriguez meant it was the first time in five months that the Real Madrid coach had his whole squad at his disposal. It came at the most convenient time, too, with Madrid entering the crucial final stages of the season.
That good fortune has not lasted long. Saturday's visit of Malaga to the Santiago Bernabeu may have resulted in a crucial three points for Madrid, thanks to goals from Ramos, James and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the copybook was well and truly blotted by not just one, but two injuries to key first-team starters.
Modric's bad luck on the injury front continued when he was forced off on the hour mark with what was confirmed as a knee ligament injury on Sunday morning. The Croatian is expected to be sidelined for six weeks and that could see his season over unless Madrid progress to the Champions League final. It followed Gareth Bale's departure just minutes into the match against Javi Gracia's men. The Welshman will have scans on his calf injury on Monday morning and Madrid hope his setback will not be as severe as the one suffered by their midfield maestro.
Both former Tottenham Hotspur players will miss Wednesday's crucial Champions League quarter-final second leg clash with Atletico Madrid, however. The duo's absence will be a big blow for the current holders and Ancelotti will be keeping everything crossed that Karim Benzema recovers in time to feature. Marcelo will also miss out through suspension.
More on the injuries
More on the injuries
It has left Ancelotti with a selection dilemma ahead of the huge European derby duel with Diego Simeone's men but the Madrid coach had a selection dilemma anyway - which of his star names to leave out. The absences of two big players will hamper Madrid's chances of progression this week but Ancelotti does at least have an embarrassment of riches at his disposal as back-up.
Plenty of Madrid fans have been calling on Ancelotti to change tact from his preferred 4-3-3 system to a 4-2-2 line-up without Bale included in the starting eleven. The flip side of Bale's blow is that at least those fans could get their wish on Wednesday night. If Benzema is fit enough to start, as Ancelotti was confident of in Saturday's post-match press conference, he could partner Cristiano Ronaldo in a front two. His lack of faith in Javier Hernandez and Jese Rodriguez should see the Italian lean that way.
Modric's absence will impact not only Wednesday night's match but Madrid's longer-term hopes of winning La Liga and holding on to the Champions League. Simeone singled the Croatia international out before the first leg and he made Madrid tick so well that although the match finished in a stalemate, Ancelotti's men actually had the upper hand against Atleti for the first time this season and at the seventh time of asking. It was orchestrated by Modric.
The silver lining is that the magic of Isco should be on show at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night. The former Malaga man, again linked with big-money moves to the Premier League this week, has been the one to miss out when Ancelotti has had all of his options available this term and despite him being arguably Madrid's stand-out player since the turn of the year. He has been idolised at home and on enemy soil but the ‘BBC' has been supplied by Toni Kroos, Modric and James when they have all been available. Isco's magic has been boxed up.
The 22-year-old did line-up for Madrid against his former club at the weekend but that was only due to Benzema's absence. Now his majesty, which has seen him score three goals and provide eight assists from 22 Liga starts so far this term, will be on show again on Wednesday and that should form part of a midfield four that will offer the hosts some defensive stability but still provide plenty of attacking threat to help provide and produce the goals needed to progress to the semi-finals at the expense of their city rivals.
Isco would line-up on the left, as he has done for the most part of this season when called upon, while James will take his place on the right side. That allows both players to cut inside and cause plenty of havoc, as well as allow full-backs Dani Carvajal and Fabio Coentrao push forward out wide to cause Simeone's side problems. Width was a key part of Madrid's success at the Calderon last week and they do not want to lose that.
Both players will also chip in defensively. Isco and James have shown that they have bought into Ancelotti's required work ethic, much more than Bale, and the fact that Isco has been on the bench in some recent matches may work in his favour in what is set to be an intense match on Wednesday against a tough Atleti side. The Colombian will be handed more licence to go forward, taking up Bale's position in a front three, but he will be much more disciplined in a midfield four.
Kroos will be one of the first names down on the teamsheet and he will take his place in the centre of midfield, leaving perhaps Ancelotti's toughest choice as to who will partner the German in the middle. Asier Illarramendi, Sami Khedira and Lucas Silva will all put their hands up to get the nod but only one will get their chance on the big stage.
Ancelotti dropped January addition Silva from his match day squad for the first leg, citing after the game that the Brazilian is one for the future, and that points towards the former Cruzeiro man being bottom of the list. A place on the bench at best awaits the youngster on Wednesday night.
The battle for a starting role will most likely boil down to Illarramendi and Khedira, as it so often has in the past. On previous occasions Ancelotti has opted for the German, the most notable example being in last season's final when he built the Basque up in the weeks before the match to be the one to start only to hand Khedira the opportunity after missing most of the season through injury. He also opted for the former Stuttgart man in the 2-0 Copa del Rey defeat against Atleti in January and the 4-0 league loss just weeks later, although he did come off at half-time with an injury.
Things have changed since then, however. Khedira was not on the bench against Malaga at the weekend and Illarramendi came on as Modric's direct replacement with half-an-hour to spare. The World Cup winner has not played a minute since featuring against Schalke in the 4-3 home defeat in the quarter-finals and that should play into the former Real Sociedad man's hands on Wednesday.
Both players are expected to leave come the summer. Khedira, who is out of contract, has already confirmed he is looking for a new club, possibly Schalke if the reports are to be believed, while Illarramendi is also expected to move on in light of Silva's arrival, Casemiro's possible return and the chance of more Galacticos making their way to the Spanish capital. Both players are not part of Ancelotti's long-term plans.
The difference is that Illarramendi has still played, albeit not from a starting role, while Khedira has not. Rumours of Khedira's future club asking for the German not to feature for Madrid have been circulating and weight is added to those rumours when you look at Khedira's failure to feature since Schalke. Stomach bugs, which are "seen as an excuse" in Spanish football, according to Barcelona midfielder Xavier, have been cited, yet Khedira has been strangely fine to feature for his country when called upon.
Illarramendi has shown signs of weakness in Madrid's bigger matches, notably at the same stage last season when Madrid almost threw away their advantage against Borussia Dortmund. They rarely get bigger than Saturday's Champions League quarter-final clash with city rivals Atletico. Expect him to be the man to line-up in place of Modric at the Bernabeu, however, and as a collective Madrid will need to be stronger than ever to cover their probable personnel losses.
Probable line-up against Atleti: Casillas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Kroos, Illarramendi, Isco, James; Benzema, Ronaldo.