It's that time of the season when the next game, seemingly more than ever, is the most important one. When the next game is the game of the season - the result a matter of life and death in football terms. The match that makes of players: winners or losers; heroes or villains; champions or pretenders. For the most valuable sports team in the world, that match is in two days. Real Madrid will attempt to successfully navigate the momentous Italian test in the form of a treble hunting Juventus at the Santiago Bernabéu. The confidence gained from the fantastic liberating victory against the Rojiblancos in the quarterfinals dissipated swiftly following the deflating loss in Torino and the heartbreaking draw against Nuno Gomes' impressive Valencia. Dropped points in the latter match effectively killed any hope of finishing first in the league race.
As Wednesday edges closer, the tension grows increasingly palpable. The media frenzy, especially over certain players feeds into the mass anxiety. Is Casillas a finished man? Would a potential loss against Allegri's determined troops complete the assassination of one of Real Madrid's most accomplished and decorated players (O Captain! My Captain!)? Or would a win mask the damage that his continued playing prominence causes? These are the extremes of a spectrum of opinion which seems to have no middle ground. More words have been shared on the topic than one would care to count but the issue burns brightly at the forefront of madridismo affairs.
Gareth Bale: the misunderstood genius or glorified simpleton? The man who took Real Madrid by storm in his debut season has faced the almost contemptuous criticism of the press and fans for the entirety of the season. His agent speculates that the problem (suggesting that there is one) isn't with the player but with team tactics which undermine the winger. Bale's detractors see a misfit who can't operate in the more "intricate" context of the "Spanish" game. Both cases are exaggerations with hints of truth. At the end of the day, Bale will almost undoubtedly start against Juventus with the full backing of his manager and his Real Madrid future is unlikely to be greatly impacted by his performance.
"The situation with Sergio Ramos hasn't changed, he can play in a number of positions. He did very well against Juventus, if he needs to, I'm going to play him again in that position."
Ancelotti's Ramos midfield experiment against Juventus was widely branded a failure. That along with Illarramendi's encouraging performance against Valencia will make the selection decisions slightly more complicated for the coach.
Were Juventus to adopt a more conservative and reactive approach for the second leg, Ramos' physicality would provide great defensive support while his inexperience in the middle third would be less exposed due to the lessened tactical responsibilities of dealing with a low block. Illarramendi on his best days provides more stability (offensively and defensively) due to measured passing, tempo setting, positional discipline, reading of play, and anticipation. Where he is an inferior option to Ramos is in some specific one-on-one scenarios as his physicality and intensity do not match the center back's.
There are questions elsewhere in the line up - Marcelo or Coentrao? Chicharito or Benzema? Kroos' condition? There are credible arguments for either and one of these decisions could prove ultimately decisive in the 90 minutes (or more) against Tevez and co. These will weigh heavily on the minds of fans who see the club at a crossroads. One path leads to Berlin and a potential historic successive Champions League win while the other is a nightmarish picture of a depressed club left empty handed wondering exactly where the season went wrong and who is to blame. Left wondering how the champions of Europe were eliminated on all three fronts with the European Supercup and Club World Cup serving as little consolation. Left wondering how a team two games away from breaking the all-time world record for most consecutive wins would fail to win almost 40% of the 28 matches that followed.
.@MrAncelotti: "If we play like this against Juve, things will go well for us". http://t.co/rL7zS9ZxlN #HalaMadrid pic.twitter.com/eTIAzdrNiW— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) May 9, 2015
For the sake of the collective sanity of the club and its fans, we hope these questions will not have to be asked. As many say, it's not necessarily about the result, it's about the quality of play and level of effort. If these two things are present however, there is very little chance the team isn't rewarded with a spot in the final.