Real Madrid face dilemma replacing Casemiro against Manchester City
In a fitting end to a season full of injuries, Real Madrid will miss two key starters for their biggest match of 2016, the return leg of a Champions League semifinal match Wednesday against Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Despite their hard work with the physios, French striker Karim Benzema (hamstring) and Brazilian defensive midfielder Carlos Casemiro (hip) have not been able to recover from their respective injuries. Cristiano Ronaldo is back to his top form and will start, according to coach Zinedine Zidane, although it's still unclear how fit the Portuguese star actually is.
Even if Ronaldo feels fine, both absentees have become key elements for the type of football Zidane has implemented since he took over the team in January, and both players will be sorely missed.
In his best scoring season with Real Madrid, Benzema has not only become the focal point of most offensive moves but has also shown an unprecedented accuracy in front of the opposition's goal, especially when the initial deadlock of any match needs to be broken. The Frenchman has scored the opener 14 times, a rare skill that would indeed be useful against City.
Casemiro, similar to what he achieved with former coach Rafael Benitez, has earned a spot in Zidane's starting lineup through hard work and impressive defensive skills. His tireless effort allows Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to venture forward, and thus the forwards benefit from better midfield service.
Lucas Vazquez is the only option to replace Benzema, but finding a substitute for Casemiro seems a bit more challenging.
Close to completing an outstanding season, the diminutive Vazquez deserves a place in the starting XI. The way he has influenced several matches with his vigorous running and his knack for showing up at the right place at the right moment make him the first option off the bench when any of the starting forwards can't play. In the last few matches, Vazquez has developed a good understanding with the in-form Gareth Bale, and the duo has kept Real Madrid in La Liga's title run.
Replacing Casemiro is far more complex. There's no other defensive midfielder with the Brazilian's skills in the squad, so if Zidane intends to preserve the current lineup's design, he might consider using a centre-back in his place.
This was something that both Jose Mourinho did with Pepe and Carlo Ancelotti did with Sergio Ramos before Zidane. In fact, Casemiro rarely intervenes in the buildup of offensive moves. He simply -- or not that simply -- makes the steal, gives it to Modric or Kroos, and goes back to his position, something that either Pepe or Ramos could do as well.
That approach might sound too conservative at first sight. However, playing with three forwards in Bale, Ronaldo and Vazquez might demand some reinforcement in the middle of the park, especially against a fast, talented team like City, ready to counter as soon as they gain the ball.
The news of City midfielder Yaya Toure's recovery adds some weight to this Pepe-Ramos alternative, as dealing with the physically imposing Ivorian requires muscle in midfield.
The other option would see Kroos go back to the defensive midfielder position, where he played often earlier this season. Either Isco Alarcon or James Rodriguez would likely join the starting XI, with Isco the favoured choice. The logic behind this alternative, a more offensive approach in a must-win match, seems obvious, but Real Madrid have suffered with this lightweight midfield in certain matches before.
Depending on how the game unfolds, Zidane might use both options at different moments. But regardless of what the Frenchman decides with the defensive midfielder position and the centre of the defence, some of the other team choices seem obvious. Keylor Navas should start in goal, Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo in the full-back positions, and Bale, Ronaldo and Vazquez up front.
Looking back even a month, it's almost incredible that Real Madrid are only one match away from making the Champions League final and one point behind the La Liga leaders after such a roller coaster of a season.
No matter what happens in the next few days in the European competition and the domestic tournament, Zidane has instilled a new attitude in this squad. They now show a level of self-confidence and belief in their own ability that, as recently as six weeks ago, seemed long lost. Comeback wins and authoritative displays have become the norm, when they used to be a rarity.
The fact that Atletico have already made the final might work as a distracting factor for Real, but Zidane knows well how to put pressure on his squad: "If we don't make the final, I'll consider this a failure," he said on Tuesday afternoon.
The stakes are indeed high, but even without the absentees, the team look as ready to win a key match as they have the whole season. At no point in the past nine months has this squad shown the level of focus and determination they display now.
It's time for a great performance. Let the Bernabeu roar.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.