Real Madrid missing Pepe as crunch fixtures approach
Real Madrid need Pepe back -- and soon. The Portugal international has been out with a foot problem since the end of January, and he has been excluded from the squad to travel to Italy for the Champions League last 16 first-leg match against Roma on Wednesday. So far, there has been no official estimate as to when Pepe might be fit for action again.
The central defender is suffering from a plantar fascia problem, which is both painful and unpredictable. Manager Zinedine Zidane is in for a few nervous days as he faces his first multi-match week since replacing Rafa Benitez.
Marcelo has recovered more quickly than expected from a shoulder injury, and he trained with the squad on Monday. The Brazilian passed a fitness test and has been included on the list for the Olympic Stadium, which is a huge boost for the Real boss. Weaknesses on the left of defence forced Zidane to field Dani Carvajal there for the 4-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao, and even though the Spain international's versatility is one of his many strengths, he was skinned a couple times in an unfamiliar position. Zidane will be very pleased to be able to call on Marcelo in the Eternal City.
However, Pepe's continued absence presents the Frenchman with a longer-term consideration. After Roma, Madrid have an away game at resurgent Malaga, then a derby date against Atletico on Feb. 27.
When Zidane took the reins from Benitez in the first week of the new year, Real had been third in La Liga for seven weeks. Not since week 10 at the end of October had the World Cup winner's inherited squad topped the Primera pile. To an extent, Zidane has a pass in the league and is blameless in the administrative shambles that led to the club's being kicked out of the Copa del Rey in round four. The only competition Zidane can stamp his mark on is the Champions League. Benitez guided Real through the first phase in style: group winners, joint highest scorers, tied for fewest goals conceded. PSG failed to score against Benitez's side in 180 minutes. Zidane knows he has to pass his first European test with flying colours.
That means no unforeseen mishaps against Roma, who have won four Serie A games on the bounce under new coach Luciano Spalletti. That means a full-strength side, which will probably mean risking Marcelo. It will also mean Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane in the middle, and Dani Carvajal on the right.
The Champions League is the Holy Grail for Real Madrid, particularly in the Florentino Perez era. It is also Zidane's best chance for a debut trophy as manager: Atletico continue to grind out 1-0 wins, and Barcelona are in irresistible form. Luis Enrique's side are four points clear of third-placed Real, with a game in hand and a Camp Nou Clasico in their favour.
Real have to see off Atletico in two weeks' time to stay in the hunt. Varane's expulsion against Athletic will be appealed and in all likelihood rescinded. Both cautions issued to the France international were rather harsh. It was the first sending off of Varane's career -- he's not that sort of player, as the cliche goes. But even if Varane is able to line up in La Rosaleda, Ramos and Carvajal are a caution away from watching the derby from the stands. In a worst-case scenario, Real could be left with Varane and Nacho as a central defensive partnership against Atletico. The last time that happened it didn't go well at all, with Real on the losing end of a 4-0 thrashing.
Perez's faith in Carlo Ancelotti was eroded by that humiliation in the Calderon. A similar result in the Bernabeu won't be irreparable for Zidane's long-term future, but it will all but end the club's hopes of its first La Liga title since 2012.
Pepe is the trump card in every respect. A considerably more mature player than he was a few years ago -- in no small part due to his no longer being involved in anti-tiki taka tactics used by former manager Jose Mourinho -- the 32-year-old is on only three yellows in La Liga. Ramos and Carvajal will have to walk a very thin disciplinary tightrope in Malaga if nobody else is available. In Ramos' case, that is never an encouraging thought. So far this season, Zidane has made only two changes to his starting XI for technical reasons: Danilo for Carvajal against Betis and Mateo Kovacic for Isco against Athletic. He won't relish the prospect of shuffling his pack under duress in games to come.
There has been a lot of negative press about Real's so-called "Doctor Stretch", Jesus Olmo, who is the son-in-law of Perez's personal physician, as this season the Bernabeu treatment room has welcomed a steady stream of walking wounded. The number of injuries, mostly muscular in nature, the squad has suffered in 2015-16 is approaching 20. Gareth Bale, Danilo and others have all snuck abroad at one time or another in an attempt to cure their nagging injuries.
Zidane is staring right at the business end of the season. In the next six weeks, his side will face Roma twice -- a must-win tie -- Atletico, Celta, Sevilla, Barcelona and, potentially, the first leg of a Champions League quarterfinal.
Philipp Lienhart, a 19-year-old Austrian central defender, and Dominican striker Mariano Diaz have been rewarded for their performances for Castilla with places in the Champions League "A squad" list for the remainder of the competition. Zidane will be praying he doesn't need to call on the former.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.