Although it might have been tempting for Zinedine Zidane to start in Warsaw without some of Madrid’s regulars, the coach will be happier on reflection that he didn’t.
Zidane could have argued that the Legia game would have been an ideal opportunity to give more game time to some of those players who don’t normally get a full ninety minutes; but instead resisted the temptation to juggle the starting line-up too much.
Given the fact that the next match is against Leganés followed by (yet) another international break, the temptation will be there to make sweeping changes this coming weekend. In the interests of keeping everyone at first team level actively involved and happy up to a point, the chance to allow some of the fringe players the opportunity to start needs to be balanced against that of fielding a settled team.
Not everyone in Real’s squad is currently on top form. Neither Karim Benzema nor Cristiano Ronaldo (despite his scoring record) have really been firing on all cylinders since returning from injury and that’s likely because they’re still not just quite there in terms of match fitness rather than for any other reason.
Although missing a huge chunk of the pre-season didn’t help Karim, Cristiano missed all of it. He even jokingly mentioned a fortnight ago that he expects to be fully fit by April!
Not that anyone is singling out Karim or CR7 for special criticism I hasten to add; but with both players having spent so much time out with injury, it’s simply taking them a while to get going. In terms of fitness, there’s only a certain stage you can reach in training before the need for match practice becomes a priority over running and ball work. It’s okay putting the ball in the net in training but it’s the real thing that counts; and the only way to get that is by playing.
As Keylor Navas will testify, game time is the important thing after being out for such a lengthy period and no matter how much you try to recreate match situations in training there’s always that last bit that falls short. Even playing closed-door practice matches against the Castilla lads doesn’t have the same competitive edge to it compared to a game against outside opposition who have no respect for the fact that you’re coming back from injury. So the tackles will fly in; and to be honest, the only way to adjust to that level is simply to play.
Karim Benzema suffered with a hip / sacroiliac injury which took weeks to resolve, and like others returning to the team, he had to quickly adapt to the step-up in intensity between training and playing in proper games. In the weeks leading up to Karim’s return, the images coming out of Valdebebas were of him training hard, pushing weights and running on a daily basis; similar to what we’re seeing now with Sergio Ramos and co.
Such a regime was the order of the day before building into the game-related exercises and functional football drills present in the latter stages of rehabilitation. Once that’s been done, the end product is only achieved by playing.
Cristiano has been out for a lot longer than Karim in terms of training days lost but has stuck diligently to his task throughout. His return was welcomed and now the goals are starting to go in for him again. Yet there are times when you can see the frustration in his play. He sets himself high standards and since he doesn’t try to hide how difficult having to be patient with himself (and others) can be, this aspect of his personality tends to come across in a negative way.
Karim is now beginning to look more like his old self but it’s evident that there are still times when he too looks like he’s labouring. Maybe he’s simply trying too hard; but once it all ‘clicks’ properly and he’s able to relax on the pitch the confidence will return and he’ll be on top of his game again. He’s not too far off now anyway; but as strikers tend to be judged by how often they hit the net it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are other aspects of their game to consider as well.
The similarity between both Karim and Cristiano in terms of match fitness is clear, but the one thing that stands out above everything else is the fact that they need to play. They’re only going to get 100% match fit by playing in competitive games against recognised first team opponents. We didn’t really expect either to be left out of the Champions League line-up; but the game with Leganés could be a different story.
Zidane’s dilemma is whether to give someone else a chance up front in a game that Real should easily win on paper; or to be totally ruthless about it and give Cristiano and Karim the playing time to the exclusion of the others.