Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid job review begins against Sevilla
The reactions to the, at least on paper, favourable results of the UEFA Champions League draw for Real Madrid on Friday reflect the fragile mood at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Leaving aside the numerous articles depicting the remarkable series of average rivals the Madridistas have faced in the top European tournament since Florentino Perez became President of the club, several media outlets launched a telling question: What if Real Madrid lose to Wolfsburg?
Instead of relishing the prospect of facing the German side, arguably the weakest in the quarterfinal round, the growing lack of confidence in the team has generated a bizarre line of thinking: Losing to a better team would be acceptable, but imagine that Real Madrid can't make the semifinals against a middle-of-the-table squad in the Bundesliga.
In any case, Madridistas can't waste too much time thinking of that. Fifth-placed Sevilla will visit the Bernabeu on Sunday, in what is in fact a quite demanding examination for Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid.
After a somewhat hesitant beginning of the season, Sevilla have only lost once in their last 11 La Liga matches, and it was a hard-fought 2-1 defeat against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. They have also maintained their impressive record in the Europa League, reaching the quarterfinals stage and playing the role of defending champions with outstanding ease so far.
Several of their players are hitting their best form at the right time of the season. With 13 goals in La Liga, Kevin Gameiro is quickly growing into the kind of player no team wants to face, while Ever Banega and Sebastian Cristoforo lead the team with the typical nonchalance and energy of Emery's midfielders.
And when a couple of key players such as the talented Yevhen Konoplyanka and Vitolo are out injured, bench regulars like the experienced Jose Antonio Reyes make a difference as we saw on Thursday evening in their Europa League victory over FC Basel.
Both Vitolo and Konoplyanka, still nursing niggling injuries, won't be able to play on Sunday either. In the case of the latter, who tormented Real full-back Danilo in their November meeting in Sevilla, many Madridistas will breathe a sigh of relief.
That said, one piece of data points at something not quite right when Sevilla travels: Emery's squad have not been able to win a La Liga match away from home this season (nine draws and five defeats). Their stats at the Bernabeu are similarly poor: eight defeats in their last eight visits, conceding 25 goals.
Even if the stats do not generate too much trust for a bet on the visitors, the level of intensity Emery's team applies in every match is exactly the type of stress test Zidane's Real Madrid need. Since he took over, the Madridistas have been impressive at the Bernabeu, scoring 27 times in six matches.
However, the home defeat to the similarly-intense Atletico Madrid and the below-par performances in their trips to Las Palmas and Malaga have raised serious doubts about how far this Real Madrid team can actually go, both in what remains of La Liga and in Europe.
This is the first match with Zidane at the helm in which he has the full squad available, at least physically. Karim Benzema is back in full training, while Gareth Bale seems ready to play 90 minutes after his comeback against Las Palmas.
The point of concern for Zidane lies at the heart of the defence. Pepe saw his fifth card of the cycle in Las Palmas, while Sergio Ramos was sent off. So the French manager will probably have to start with Raphael Varane and Nacho Fernandez. The usually well-planned Sevilla attack will very likely target the latter, slower than Gameiro.
With those mandatory modifications, Zidane will keep intact the team he has been using in the last few matches. The in-form Keylor Navas in goal, with Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo in the full-back positions; a midfield with Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos; and a front three of James Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale.
James has seen his stock improve after this week of training, and should have a chance to get back in the good graces of the Bernabeu on Sunday. Benzema will play a few minutes, but should not start as Zidane does not want to risk a new injury.
This is Real Madrid's last match before the Clasico at the Camp Nou the week after Easter. The energetic Sevilla looks like the perfect preparation for a high-profile game, so it's a good plan that Zidane tests a few ideas before putting them into action in Barcelona.
With La Liga out of reach, Zidane's goal is a Champions League title, but he should not lose sight of the domestic competition. A defeat on Sunday would mean two weeks of noise and gossip before the trip to Barcelona, a far-from-ideal environment to face such a high-stakes match.
The consolidation -- or otherwise -- of Zidane's position on the bench at the Bernabeu starts in two days, in a must-win contest camouflaged as an inoffensive match in an already lost competition against a team that tends to underperform in Madrid. The level of focus and intensity of the squad will tell a lot about Zidane's ability to motivate them and his potential to remain at his current job.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.