Zidane needs repeat performance from Real Madrid fringe players
Zinedine Zidane needed a response from his players in the midweek round of fixtures and he got one.
It wasn't a vintage performance by any means but it was a more energetic display than the previous weekend's derby defeat.
Zidane's hand was forced by injuries and suspensions, but the side he put out in the Ciutat de Valencia ran itself into the ground, a necessity against a side battling relegation and who generally just enjoy giving Real a hard time.
No player put in more hard yards than Lucas Vázquez, and Casemiro made a mockery of Zidane's decision to ignore him completely before Wednesday. Borja Mayoral may not have set the stage for his full debut alight but he found the back of the net via the post and Diego Marino, and he showed a youthful enthusiasm that has been often lacking this season as the club has lurched form one disaster to another.
At half-time, the Castilla striker was seen pleading with the referee: It later transpired he was asking the man in the middle to award Real's second goal to him. It was a refreshing interlude in a season when older heads have tended to drop when all is not going according to plan.
Now it remains to be seen what Zidane will do when he has Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos back from suspension and Gareth Bale available after his latest injury setback. The Welshman is in the squad after a month-and-a-half on the sidelines but needs to be eased back in.
The league is no longer a viable option this season. The Champions League is. Real have one foot in the quarterfinals and Zidane has game-changing players at his disposal, all with European experience. The obvious course is to continue on the same path of giving pitch time to squad players ahead of next season -- bearing in mind the possibility of a transfer ban this summer -- while keeping the big guns in reserve for Europe. Roma visit the Bernabeu on Tuesday night with a two-goal deficit to make up and as Bayern Munich can attest, such an outcome is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Carlo Ancelotti didn't do too much wrong as Madrid manager, but a refusal to use his squad caught up with him in the end. Towards the end of the Italian's second season the signs of fatigue were clear, and Real limped home in all competitions. Zidane has the luxury of being able to concentrate on just one.
Third place in the league is the club's domestic priority now, however bitter a pill that is to swallow in the boardroom, with a stiff drink. The draw between Celta and Villarreal on Wednesday benefited only Madrid, who opened up a four-point cushion over Marcelino's side. This weekend's fixtures have not been overly kind to Real, with Villarreal playing at home against Las Palmas.
A slip-up against Celta will increase the pressure on Zidane in the league, where a Clasico looms. Madrid have to get past Roma. But they also need a result against Celta on Saturday.
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have both been ruled out against Celta and that could be handy for Tuesday's appointment. Both midfielders are third and fourth in the list of players with most time on the pitch this season, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Keylor Navas. An afternoon off won't do them any harm; Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic have proven they are more than capable of deputizing.
Ronaldo of course will not be rested. The Portuguese has started every game this season and been substituted just once, in the 89th minute in the Stadio Olimpico. While personal goals are still open -- the Pichichi trophy and the European Golden Boot -- he will remain on the pitch. Against Celta it makes sense as he is the only first-team regular listed in Real's squad of 19 for Saturday as a forward.
Bale will feature but probably not from the start. Zidane will be eager to ensure he shakes off a little rust but won't risk an injury setback ahead of Tuesday. In good news for Zidane, he can play his habitual starting back four. All of Real's defenders are now fit and available. Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe and Marcelo will provide rafts of European experience on Tuesday to counter Roma's attack.
In the meantime, though Zidane denied he was looking past Saturday in his prematch press conference, Celta are not to be underestimated. They are the only side in Europe who can claim to have thrashed Barcelona this season. And although the Galicians' early form has evaporated in recent weeks, Eduardo Berrizo can also count on a full complement for the first time in a long time.
Nolito, Iago Aspas and Fabio Orellana, who put Barca to the sword in a 4-1 victory, are back in action and despite the loss of club captain Augusto Fernandez to Atletico in the January sales, Eduardo Berrizo's midfield is still a formidable obstacle. Daniel Wass and Marcelo Diaz anchored the side in midweek, allowing Celta to operate with a front four when in possession. Villarreal were stopped in their tracks.
Zidane's fringe players stepped up in the Ciutat de Valencia. They will be required to do so again on Saturday.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.