Real Madrid is in Basque Country to take on Eibar — at team who’s been punching above their weight this season, and have already taken two points off of Zidane’s men at the Bernabeu. Of course, drawing at home to Eibar earlier this season was unideal, and travelling to Ipura on Saturday to face Mendilibar’s men without Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale is unideal too. Morata, it should be noted, will be suspended for this match as well.
In case it provides any comfort to Madridistas at all, Real Madrid blasted Sevilla this season in the Copa del Rey without their two star behemoths — Ronaldo and Bale — and snatched an impressive 3-0 victory, simultaneously putting in one of their best performances of the season. Without Ronaldo, Bale, and Morata; Zidane could opt to go for a similar formation to the one that dismantled Sevilla — though he won’t have Morata, who’s movement was a huge part of the offense that night. He was a thorn and made cutting runs in-behind Sevilla’s dazed defenders all game.
Even despite the absences, there is still plenty of firepower, and Real Madrid should look to James to step up and take a heavier load in Zidane’s scheme — more than the typical pop-up-shop he set up on the right wing against Valencia, where he acted as an outlet and nothing more. James dictated the offense without alpha-males Ronaldo and Bale against Sevilla, and there’s no reason he can’t do it again — especially with Marcelo and Isco sharing the offensive workload from the central and left channels.
Regardless of of the lineup, everyone will be looking to Zidane to improve the team’s transitional defense, which was a complete black hole on Wednesday against Las Palmas. Ramos and Nacho treaded water all game, left for dead from the lack of coverage on both flanks. A lot of blame was shifted on Marcelo and the lack of Casemiro, but there are clear tactical issues in play that make it more of a blueprint issue than one of mere player selection. Gabe and I talked about this on last night’s podcast.
To help set the stage for Saturday’s match in Eibar, I reached out to Paul Reidy (@PaulReidy67), who, graciously agreed to answer my questions (I was irrationally excited to do this Q&A with Paul).
Kiyan: Welcome back, enemy. I'm so excited to pick your brain about 7th place Eibar! For months now I've been preaching to Madridistas that Eibar is the real deal, and that 1-1 draw earlier this season was not as disastrous of a scoreline as it originally seemed given some of the other scores we've seen from big teams, and also how much better Eibar are than most people originally thought. So, let me ask you this: Have Eibar surprised you with how good they've been this season?
Paul: Yes, the teams´ excellent performances so far this season have been a more than pleasant surprise. As always the club were in the favorites for relegation and to be on the cusp of a European place was beyond even the most optimistic Eibar fans wildest dreams.
Kiyan: Given how good EIbar have been, are you surprised that they haven't been able to sell out the Ipurua - a stadium which only fits 6,285 spectators - regularly? What's the reason attendance is so low?
Paul: Having always been the poor relation at the top table of Basque football dominated by neighbours Athletic in Bilbao and Real Sociedad in San Sebastian, the club have a mammoth task in attracting new fans and realise that this is a long term ongoing process.
Kiyan: Please tell us how our boy Pedro Leon is doing (apart from the obvious: scoring golazos, dramatic late-game equalizers, and sending penalties to the sky).
Paul: Pedro Leon is having a great season by and large due to the great confidence that Mendilibar has installed within the team and specifically within the Murcia born player who has grown visibly as a player on the pitch with Leon stepping up to the plate in terms of responsibility.
Kiyan: Since losing by 0-4 to Barcelona on January 22nd, you've scored a combined 20 goals against: Atletico, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Depor, and Granada. What's been the key factor during this run?
Paul: As per the case with Pedro Leon, the team are playing with a huge headwind of confidence. Mendilibar deserves a great amount of credit for being able to structure a well balanced team so soon with many new faces who were drafted in to the club last Summer. The bulk of the new signings have adapted well and are all playing to a decent standard.
Kiyan: Agree or disagree: coach of the year goes to Mendillibar (with Pellegrino a close 2nd).
Paul: I think he's certainly in the conversation and a candidate for the podium. Eusebio at Real Sociedad and Quique Setien (Las Palmas) are other contenders.
Kiyan: Can you tell us more about Sergi Enrich, and his importance to this Eibar team?
Paul: Enrich was somewhat overshadowed last season by Borja Baston who's move to Swansea has left the forward line protagonist position free for Enrich to make the step-up. Interest from England in the winter market is a level of just how good the Mallorquín is playing. After Iago Aspas, Enrich is the second highest Spanish player in LaLiga on ten goals for the 16/17 campaign.
Kiyan: I was at the Bernabeu for the 1-1 draw against Eibar. The fans were not happy, and, after Fran Rico scored in the opening 6 minutes, Real Madrid just couldn't recover in time. Slow starts have been a problem for us all season. Do you think Eibar will approach this game with the intent of scoring early, fully knowing that Real Madrid have been pretty bad coming out of the games this season?
Paul: This is the third time that Madrid visit Ipurua since Eibar's amazing 2B-2A-top flight promotion. On previous visits Madrid ran out a with comfortable 0-4 and 0-2 wins. Eibar will never have a better time to overcome the rich side from the capital as Zidane's side travel without Cristiano, Bale, Morata and Varane. The French coach will also have one eye on next Tuesday's Champions League tie against Napoli so the script is beautifully set for Eibar to record a famous win or at least share a spoil of the points.
Kiyan: You'll be at Ipurua for this one. What is it like A) being there; and B) hanging out in the city of Eibar?
Paul: On both counts it's great. Despite the small capacity, the noise generated from the home fans when the big guns come to town is fabulous. Eibar will be abuzz tomorrow and the town-folk relish being at the centre of the footballing world for a few hours.
Rarely in all my global football travels, have I visited a town where the union, bond and pride between the people and their football club is stronger.
No kids running about in Barça/Madrid shirts in Eibar !
Kiyan: Let’s hear your prediction, Paul.
Paul: 2-1 !