How things change constantly in football. A year ago I was at the Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid drop two points against Eibar — Isco was whistled off the pitch for holding the ball too long, Fran Rico took advantage of a napping Danilo / Pepe / Ramos to score within six minutes, Real Madrid struggled to break through, and, through some consolation, Gareth Bale and Mateo Kovacic played really good games.
A year on, we have truths: Isco is a rock-star, Eibar were better than we thought, and Real Madrid won the double. Win... Win?
Eibar haven’t had the same success as last season until now, and Mendilibar is dealing with a better La Liga, top-to-bottom, as well as taking a huge injury hit to Pedro Leon who’s already missed the entire season, with no real timetable for his return. Fran Rico, Ivan Ramis, Yoel Rodriguez, and Ivan Alejo are also expected to miss out on Sunday’s match. Meanwhile, Eibar’s defense has been poor (they’re tied for last in goal differential, with a net negative of -14), as they clearly miss Lejeune’s presence from last season, and are coming off a goalless draw at home against a dire Depor side last weekend.
To help set the stage, I reached out to Paul Reidy (@paulreidy67), who’s a passionate Eibar follower.
Kiyan: Eibar of 2017-18 have not been the same EIbar of 2016-17 (not yet, anyway) we fell in love with. What's the biggest reason for the drop off?
Paul: There’s a few reasons for this ... This new team is still taking its time to gel and we’ve been fortunate and somewhat spoilt that recent sides clicked so quickly, hence the increased level of expectation. The absence of Pedro Leon (who is the glue that held the team together last season) is a huge loss also for the Armeros. Injuries have not been kind either in the initial opening phase with Ramis the latest player to be sidelined after picking up a serious injury last weekend.
Kiyan: There was a ton of emphasis on the flanks against Depor. Without Pedro Leon and Inui, the full-backs pushed high and put in plenty of crosses which Deportivo seemed to comfortably pick out. Is that kind of scheme something that Mendilibar has gone to a lot this season?
Paul: Towards the end of last season Kike was highly influential as a striker and thrives on high balls into the box. This tactic has yet to pay dividends yet this season with the strike force yet to carburet.
Kiyan: What's the latest on Pedro Leon? How much does his absence hurt the team, and will we see Inui back this weekend?
Paul: I think Inui is expected to play some role on Sunday but possibly starting from the bench. As to when we’ll see Pedro Leon again is a more complex issue, with his knee injury recovery ongoing and no return date yet announced.
Kiyan: Last season at the Bernabeu, Eibar gained an unlikely draw. If they're to pull off a similar feat this season, what do they have to do?
Paul: The key to taking the game to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, as we saw with Real Betis, and just this week with Tottenham, is to endeavour to retain as much possession as possible. The key on Sunday is to keep the game alive as a contest for as long as possible and if things are still at 0-0 come the 60th/70th minute, the crowd will get edgy and Zidane will try and chase the game leaving more space. Having said that, Eibar do get stage fright against the supposed big teams, and last year’s 1-1 draw, was both a great result, and somewhat of an anomaly.
Kiyan: Like most small La Liga teams, Eibar had a very active summer transfer window. Who are the important imports, and who were the biggest exports?
Paul: Great things were expected from Charles who has flattered to deceive so far. Paulo and Jordan were also expected to drive the club forward with mixed results and injury hampering progression.
Without a doubt the biggest departure and most dearly missed player is Lejune. A solid defensive presence and his absence and suitable replacements see Eibar with one of the poorest defences in La Liga to date.
Kiyan: Will Kike and Sergi Enrich start together, and perhaps look to unnerve Real Madrid on set-pieces with their strength?
Paul: Probably. Enrich has still yet to reconnect with the great form displayed in the two previous campaigns. Mendilibar may opt to just play one striker and pack the midfield.
Kiyan: Who do you love more -- Rayo or Eibar?
Paul: Tough one... like being asked who is your favourite son....
Rayo are my long term love as living in Madrid and going to home games is just a twenty minutes metro ride from the house. I discovered Eibar back in the dark days when Rayo were in a 2B promotional playoff and made the journey to Ipurua in June 2006. I was immediately captivated by the unique tie between the club and local community. When Eibar were promoted to the top flight in May 2014 and were forced to raise additional capital I found myself helping out the club by spreading the story of their plight among my network of contacts in the world of international media. They are what I would call my adopted team and I have immense admiration for the way they run the football club and the work they do with important social causes.
Kiyan: Call it.
Paul: Heart 0-1.