Real Madrid host Gijon tomorrow, in what seems like a gift from the schedule-making gods in the midst of a jam-packed stretch which saw Zidane’s men face Atletico and Sporting CP away, and sees them eventually travel to Camp Nou before returning to Madrid to host Borussia Dortmund.
It’s easy to overlook this game sandwiched in-between all this madness, but this - along with the return leg against Cultural Leonesa on the 30th - should provide opportunity for players to fill in for the starters who’ve logged heavy minutes. Fabio Coentrao, James, Danilo, Kiko Casilla, and Mariano should all feature at least once over these next two games; while Zidane may opt to rest Sergio Ramos, who is just a yellow card away from missing EL Clasico.
To help us preview tomorrow’s match against Gijon, we reached out to the excellent David Cartildge (@davidjaca) of BeIn Sports. Q&A below.
Kiyan: David, do you ever go back and watch film from the late 70s - easily Gijon's greatest era - and highlight reels from Quini?
David: I have indeed. I think we all do, in terms of looking at the legends we didn't unfortunately get to watch at the time. Real Madrid has many, and I'd advise any fan of the club who hasn't done such a thing, to look up the greats. There so many!
As for Quini. He's important to Sporting in many ways, he's the ultimate symbol of the club - along with David Villa. Humble, modest background but went on to achieve incredible amounts of success, seemingly playing without limits. I think the fact he remains at the club is vital, through the good and bad. And long may he be with us.
Kiyan: How has Abelardo's reign gone so far? Seems like for all the criticism Zidane gets for being a motivator rather than a tactician, Abelardo is not far off from that stereotype.
David: Abelardo's been inspirational. As a player he was, and as a coach too it has carried on. As you point out, he's a motivator and someone to inspire. Tactically there is a lot left to be desired and it remains a great source of debate within the Sporting fanbase. Is it time to go for someone more tactically sound? So far he's done fantastic however, without those qualities. Sporting is a club built on spirit, pride, passion - Abelardo embodies all those things and knows how to tap into them.
Kiyan: How has Sporting been able to cope with the exodus of players from last season who helped them earn their last-moment survival in La Liga? For example, Jony and Luis Hernandez were both key players last season - how big were their departures? In Hernandez's case, would you say that Amorebieta's arrival and Jorge Mere's emergence masks the hole left at center-back?
David: It's been difficult, and even more so seeing lots of the players that left not really play regularly for their new clubs. There were three main losses; Jony, Bernardo and Luis Hernandez. All three were at the core of the team, and in the case of Luis an inspiring figure. He was momentous in the dressing room, maybe like the mantle Sergio Ramos has taken on for Real Madrid. Initially, things were okay. The team appeared to gel and things were promising. But now we are seeing how important Luis and Bernardo were to us as a regular pairing. Fernando Amorebieta is a deeply flawed player, I remember him well from his Athletic days. He's rash, overly aggressive and often loses focus. It should not be up to Jorge Mere, a relative baby, to cover for his errors. And there's been plenty of them. We've missed Jony less than I thought, but we could still do with him back - of course.
Kiyan: Sporting are currently in a nine-game rut. Where do the problems lie?
David: Tactically, we are pretty amateur. Once the losses piled up, the confidence went. And when that went, you could see the spirit die a bit. And the latter has been something so endemic about the club over the last two years, there incredible two years! We never were the most tactically astute side, but the group played with immense pride - and they played nice football too! Now things are mediocre, very flat. It's all predictable, and the system is one that is fit for Segunda and not if I may say so, the best league in the world, LaLiga.
The fans are now getting a bit itchy, and uncomfortable. Should Abelardo go? A guy who still has a place in the heart, and has given so much of his for us? It's a huge dilemma. There's a lot of discontent within the club in terms of uncertainty about what to do. The players do still seem to be on his side however. I think...
Kiyan: Tell us a bit more about Jorge Mere, please. To me, he's further proof that Spain's perceived depth at the CB position moving forward - after the Ramos-Pique era - is way stronger than it looks. Do you see a day, maybe five years from now, where Jesus Vallejo and Jorge Mere are anchoring the Spanish backline?
David: Jorge Mere's a phenomenal player, and one I have every confidence in over the next few years - be it at this club or another, or Spain. He's the best to come through since David Villa, and I feel can be as important for Spanish football one day. He's still growing, but he plays with such assurance and calm. He rarely loses his head or focus. He plays aggressively and is tough, but is also elegant. He's a great centre-back package. I've said before he's more Sergio Ramos than Gerard Pique, and I think that's why he makes such a great partner for Jesus Vallejo - who I also think extremely highly of every since watching him emerge at Real Zaragoza. Mere's fine in the air, and reads the game well. Then with his feet he's not amazing, but competent. For his age, he's outstanding. I cannot wait to see Mere and Vallejo together more in the future.
Kiyan: I'm weary of this match. A match against a fiery La Liga side which is sandwiched in between a couple big champions league matches, the Madrid Derby, and El Clasico, with a depleted squad sounds like a trap.
David: Of course, the big games are coming thick and fast. The potential banana skin is always around the corner I think, and when you start believing in yourself too much then complacency creeps in. Real Madrid need to play this game as if Sporting are another huge rival, because Barcelona have a tricky game this weekend too. And the possibility that Barca slip up, and capitalizing on it, is a massive incentive. Imagine that Real Madrid draws with Sporting, while Barca lose again. It will be gutting! Sporting's really trying to motivate themselves for this one as a comeback of sorts, to see they can cope with a big side and cause problems as opposed to laying down and dying. I have my own fears that this will be a Rayo Vallecano type affair however, and we lose 7 or 8.
Kiyan: It all worked out in the end, sure, but when Carlos Castro initially missed an open net from a few feet out last season against Atletico, did your stomach turn upside down?
David: I was a mess. I was watching it in a bar in Barcelona, a kinda empty one, with my girlfriend. There was just us and the barmaid in. I was an absolute mess, forgetting that I was in a bar and not my own living room. Honestly, these last two years, there's been too many of these moments with Sporting. I wouldn't trade anything though, seriously. An easier life would be nice but it's football, and it's meant to be emotional.
Kiyan: How will Abelardo line up this match?
David: From what I am told it's going to be back to 5-3-2; Cuellar; Douglas, Lillo, Mere, Amorebieta, Isma; Sergio, Rachid, Cases; Cop-Moi
Kiyan: What’s your Prediction?
David: Real Madrid 5 Sporting 0