In the seven days between the 23rd and the 30th of November, Real Madrid will play against Real Sociedad (23rd of Nov), Paris Saint Germain (26th of Nov) and Alavés (30th of November, just the day before the mouthwatering Atlético de Madrid vs Barcelona).
After those three matches there’ll still be plenty of season ahead, including a huge Clásico in Barcelona on the 18th of December, but we can safely say that those days at the end of November will tell us plenty about the mindset of the team and how far they intend to go in each of those competitions during the season. Especially, Zidane’s midfield choices will have a lot to do with the success in these three matches.
Let’s start with Real Sociedad: the main event is Martin Ødegaard’s return to the Santiago Bernabeu, assuming that he’s recovered from the pain in his right ankle. Of course, every single Madridista wants to see the Norwegian midfielder play in his future home, but limiting the interest of the Real Sociedad match to Ø’s comeback would miss most of its appeal. The Txuri-Urdin are just two points behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, sitting fifth in the standings, and have played as well as I can remember during their first 13 matches.
Yes, Ødegaard gives them an extra dose of creativity and unpredictability in offense, but there’s plenty of players you should keep an eye on next Saturday. My favourite is the left footed Mikel Merino, a central midfielder with a touch of class who has been outstanding this season. Real Sociedad have done so well so far because they know what their game should be: getting Odegaard and Oyarzabal the ball as often as possible, and for that Merino is key. But don’t think he’s simply a ball winner, as he’s learned how to take advantage of the gaps opposing defences leave when they get overconcerned with his two extremely talented team mates.
Because of their strength in midfield, Real Sociedad will test Zidane’s trio in the middle of the pitch, and my guess is that the Frenchman will use Casemiro, Kroos and Valverde for this one. He needs the Uruguayan’s stamina against the Basques, and can give Modric some more minutes in the second half to keep him fit for PSG.
Because I believe that Zidane will start with the classic Case, Kroos, Modric against the French side, even if you and I think we should have left the days of that trio behind. PSG’s vist is a huge match for Real Madrid’s Champions League campaign, although more in terms of the status and the morale of the team than in what regards to the actual classification for the second stage. Zidane’s men looked awful in Paris against a Neymar-less and MBappe-less opponent, so they need to make a statement at the Bernabeu. I don’t think Zidane will expose Valverde to this type of atmosphere as a starter just yet, but of course he should enjoy some playing time during the second half.
The week will finish in Vitoria against Alaves, where Real Madrid lost embarrassingly last season in the last minute of extra time in a match during which the team only took two shots on goal. Here I’m pretty sure that Zidane will rotate a couple of starters, similarly to what he did in Eibar last weekend. I would hope for Case to get some well-deserved time off, for instance. Let’s just hope they show the same degree of motivation in this new trip to the Basque Country.
In any case, the team needs all three points in Vitoria as they can put Barcelona and Atletico, who face each other the following day, under a lot of pressure.
Zidane can tinker all he wants with his four midfielders, but the team still lacks a proper replacement for Casemiro. Valverde’s ability to help out everywhere and support his team mates with impressive bits of physical dominance does not mean that he’s a natural defensive midfielder. Similarly to what could happen during this key week for the season, Real Madrid’s four midfielders can combine in different ways depending on the opponent, but the squad still feels short in terms of defensive midfield options.
And while we wait a winter transfer window signing to cover for Case, let’s see how the team responds. In this unpredictable season, Zidane’s men have improved quite significantly of late and if they get three wins in the next three matches, they’ll put themselves in a great position to lead the standings in LaLiga and look again like a contender in Europe.