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James' return gives Carlo Ancelotti enviable options for crucial Liga climax

Carlo Ancelotti has an embarrassment of riches within his Madrid squad but the opportunities to make the most of his full squad have been few and far between this season - until now.

David Ramos/Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti has an enviable embarrassment of riches within his Real Madrid squad but he has rarely had the pleasure of having all of his stars at his disposal.

This season, injuries to Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and James Rodriguez have narrowed the Italian's options and the occasions where he has been able to field what he deems to be his first-choice eleven have been few and far between.

Now, with James set to return against Granada in La Liga on Sunday and both Modric and Ramos nearing full match fitness, Madrid will have their big stars available when it matters most. The only major absentee is Pepe, who is expected to miss the next three games with a thigh injury, while Isco is out of Sunday's game through suspension. Injuries permitting, Madrid could be at their strongest in terms of personnel at the ‘business end' of the campaign.

So how will Madrid line-up? Ancelotti has stuck to his guns pretty rigidly so far this season and has been stubborn in some of his selection policies. The front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are already "non-negotiable" starters when fit and available and Ancelotti also confirmed that Isco fell into the same bracket following his starring role recently.

Ancelotti's love of the 4-3-3 system, despite calls for a return to the 4-4-2 that saw Madrid at their best in victories against Barcelona and Liverpool earlier this season, means the coach's preferred line-up is a relatively easy one to call. The only dilemma surrounds whether to play Isco or James but Ancelotti's previous "non-negotiable" reference to the Spaniard's starting role makes his line-up as follows...

Ancelotti's preferred XI: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Modric, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale.

Is that the best line-up to ensure Madrid fight for the title until the final day, and one that can see Madrid become the first side to retain their Champions League title in its current format?

The back four already picks itself. Raphael Varane has produced performances that have led to calls for his regular inclusion but the Frenchman has also produced performances that have left people questioning his tag of being the best young centre-back on the planet. He has been inconsistent this season.

On the contrary, Pepe has enjoyed perhaps his best season at Madrid when he's been fit. His discipline has improved and that has helped see his performances improve. Ramos adds leadership at the back and both Dani Carvajal and Marcelo have enjoyed strong campaigns, although Carvajal's levels have dropped in recent weeks.

Plenty of questions still hang over the head of Iker Casillas. The arrival of Keylor Navas should have seen the Costa Rican in from the start but it would be unwise to bring him in at this stage of the campaign. Not only from the angle that dropping Casillas would engulf the front pages day-by-day but Navas has yet to build a solid relationship with his back four. Now is not the time to try.

The midfield and attack are the areas in doubt. The tactics should change but the personnel should remain the same.

Even in some of the more comfortable matches Madrid have looked slightly short in midfield, with gaps appearing and the quality of opposition, with respect, not able to take advantage as Atletico Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia would, and have, done.

Ancelotti's 4-3-3 has worked before but a four-man midfield looks the best bet from now until the end of the season. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are the first names down in the middle of the park, the architect and the box-to-box ball of energy. There is also the tendency to name two ‘wide' players but although the men either side of Kroos and Modric would clearly be further to the touchline, Madrid could shine with a narrow midfield four.

Carvajal and Marcelo bomb forward and that means width is usually accounted for so the two alongside Kroos and Modric can be players who tuck in centrally, who have can get further forward but also have instructions to stay as part of a midfield four - whether Madrid have the ball or not.

For that reason, Isco would be the man on the right and Bale would be the man on the left. Ancelotti likes to play Bale on the right to allow him to cut inside but he has never truly been comfortable out there. More balance would be added and the Welshman can still excel out on the left, as he showed with his superb Copa del Rey winner on the counter-attack. Playing deeper also allows him to pick the ball up deep and run further down the pitch - one of his major strengths. His relationship with Marcelo could be an exciting one and he should be given some freedom to burst forward and tuck just behind an attacking duo.

Moving Bale further back would be akin to the change in role Angel di Maria developed during his final year at the club. He was more involved in the play and that was a positive for Madrid. There will be calls for James to start ahead of the former Tottenham Hotspur man but Bale could thrive in that role, picking the ball up deeper and surging forward with his power and pace. He would offer something different to Isco's patient approach on the right. Madrid would have plenty of options.

Bale's role will also be key in that he will be playing in a 4-4-2 and not a 4-3-3 with instructions to track back when his team does not have the ball. As a former left-back he should have the qualities to chip in at the back, as Isco does, when Marcelo bombs forward. He needs to know his role and not go off-piste.

That leaves Ronaldo and Benzema leading the attack. The pair have flourished as a front two before, notably in the 3-0 victory at Anfield in the Champions League, and they will always have Bale and Isco pushing forward putting goals on a plate. Benzema's work rate and movement will be key and the Portugal international will be closer to goal, as he was earlier in the season when he bagged his superb goals-to-games ratio.

James has enjoyed a great first season at Madrid but somebody has to miss out. Ancelotti needs options from the bench and, for the climax of this season at least, the Colombian is not a bad option to have.

Preferred XI: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Bale, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Benzema Ronaldo.

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