Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
Saturday, November 3, 19:00 GMT
While Real Madrid have been notching up victories and chasing their eternal rivals, Barcelona and Atlético, for the Liga crown, the focus of attention has shifted from their performances to the role of their illustrious academy. While La Fabrica has certainly produced brilliant footballers, barring Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jose Callejón, there are no other player representing Castilla in the first team.
When Real Madrid entire set of full backs was out injured, every body expected Mourinho to dip into Castilla’s resources to fill up that gap. But the Portuguese has gone to Michael Essien to fulfill the necessary obligation.
Even though Mourinho has clarified to the press that Nacho plays primarily at centre back and thus may be unsuitable to play as full back, it is baffling to see Essien, who has been a central midfielder all his life, to play at left back according to Mourinho’s explanation at Nacho’s exclusion. This revelation has set alarm bells ringing at the club regarding the first team coach’s plans for the academy and his rift with Alberto Toril, the Real Madrid Castilla coach.
While the Madrid media is clearly backing Toril and the academy graduates, Mourinho remains unmoved and this has clearly led to a debate regarding the role of the academy in functioning of the club.
On the other hand, Manolo Jiménez has made quite an impression so far. After being wobbly in the initial few games, Zaragoza have managed to win their previous two games in the league which gives them six precious points to avoid the relegation mark.
Team News and Tactical Brief
José Mourinho’s worries in defense are still unresolved. Fábio Coentrão and Marcelo are still unavailable and Arbeloa looks unlikely to play as well. This will mean Pepe and Varane will continue to play as centre backs, with Ramos at right back. At the contentious position of left back, Essien or Albiol are likely to start. There is also a slight chance of Nacho being tried out but it is very minimal.
With Xabi Alonso unavailable due to suspension and Sami Khedira out injured, the onus will be entirely on Luka Modric to keep Real Madrid ticking. It is no secret how much Real Madrid is dependent on Alonso to maintain balance in the midfield. Modric’s performance against Mallorca may have been impressive but without Alonso, this game will be the Croatian’s biggest test to date in a while shirt.
While Mourinho clearly prefers a double pivot, he has a shortage of players at his disposal. He can play Essien or Raul Albiol alongside Luka Modric. If Mourinho decides to play Essien alongside Modric, the spotlight will be less on the Ghanaian. But, if he plays Essien on the left and Albiol in the centre as he did in the final few minutes against Mallorca, a lot of fans may be keen to see Essien slip up.
While the central midfield partnership is uncertain, there is hardly any doubt about the trio behind the primary striker. Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria will occupy the wings and Mesut Özil will play as the primary play maker. Even though the German international has not been at his devastating best, and Kaká has impressed whenever given the chance, this team still thrives on Özil’s presence.
Even though Karim Benzema scored a brace against Alcoyano, he has done little to displace Gonzalo Higuain as the primary striker. The Argentine put in a brilliant performance against Mallorca in the previous league match and was deservedly rested for the Copa del Rey clash. He will make a return to the starting XI.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Ramos, Varane, Pepe, Essien; Albiol, Modric; Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuain
While Zaragoza’s survival last season can only be called a miracle, they were expected to go down this season as well. However, Manolo Jiménez clearly has other expectations. Playing a counter attacking style of football, the only kind which they can afford considering their squad, their victory against Sevilla will definitely give them more confidence.
Roberto Gago will start in goal and will be hoping for a good match against the most feared forward line in Europe. Glenn Loovens and Cristian Sapunaru will play as centre backs while Javier Paredes and Abraham Minero will occupy the right and left flanks respectively.
Franco Zuculini and José María Movilla will provide cover as a double pivot in front of their defense. The offensive line will be lead by Hélder Postiga, the Portuguese striker who will be aided by their primary playmaker, Apono. Victor Rodriguez and Francisco Montañés will play on the flanks alongside Apono adding an extra dimension to the attack.
Jiménez is not a romantic and will clearly know that his team are no way close to their opponents. He will sit back and look to avoid any goals in the first half to give themselves any chance of salvaging a point in the second half.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Gago; Paredes, Loopens, Sapunaru, Minero; Zuculini, Movilla; Montañés, Apono, Rodriguez; Postiga
Player To Watch Out For
Michael Essien (Real Madrid)
While the Ghanaian was signed as a replacement to Lass Diarra, and was expected to play a part time role in the team, he has played a role beyond expectations. His starting at the left back position against Dortmund and Mallorca has created a furor in the media and brought to light a rift between Alberto Toril and Jose Mourinho.
While its is certainly Mourinho’s decision to play who ever he wants, Essien needs to perform well to keep Madrid’s infamous media off his back.
Hélder Postiga (Real Zaragoza)
The Portuguese striker is undoubtedly the well known name in Zaragoza’s line up. Having already scored four goals so far in the season, he will be the key to unlock the Madrid defense, led by his country man Pepe, for Zaragoza to have any chance of salvaging a point from this encounter.
Real Madrid 3 – 0 Real Zaragoza
While it is worth noting that Zaragoza are coming on the back of three victories in the league and Copa Del Rey, Real Madrid are playing at home and chasing Barcelona with all their might. One more slip, and the title may well be out of grasp. Expect Real Madrid to go all out for a victory.