Real Madrid must navigate Gijon test without Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
Sandwiched between both legs of the Champions League quarterfinals versus Bayern Munich, and one week before the upcoming Clasico against Barcelona, Real Madrid's visit to Sporting Gijon perfectly fits the profile of a trap match.
The surrounding games chronologically speaking are important enough for this one to seem secondary. The rival, Sporting, have been struggling to show they belong in La Liga since the season started, so they look like easy prey. And Real Madrid, current leaders of the tournament, could well think that a win in Gijon can be had with their third unit, not requiring the level of effort that the average Primera match demands.
But if that's the assumpiont, they would be wrong. First, from now until the end of the season Sporting will play for their lives, and there are enough examples of struggling teams that suddenly come to life when they looked like Segunda División material. Second, these three points are key for Real Madrid to host Barcelona in the best possible situation next weekend, while anything less than that would give Luis Enrique's team new hope in La Liga for their visit to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Rotations will obviously happen. Zinedine Zidane has left Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Keylor Navas out of the trip to Gijon, maintaining the policy of resting starters that seems to be bearing fruit, especially in the case of Ronaldo. Gareth Bale joins Pepe and Raphael Varane in the injury list, which coupled with the absence of the suspended Daniel Carvajal means that at least five starting positions will be covered by substitutes on Saturday afternoon. Add this to the likely possibility of Marcelo resting and Real Madrid's starting full-backs could well be Fabio Coentrao and Danilo, a nightmarish combination for team supporters.
The fact that none of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano has made the list marks the ninth time this season Zidane's team will play without any of the vaunted "BBC." So far, the numbers look decent: seven wins, one loss and one draw. That said, the forward line will look unrecognisable, and players such as Lucas Vazquez or Alvaro Morata must step up, similarly to what they have done in previous instances this year.
Sporting, five points away from salvation with seven matches to go, do not look as threatening as they have in previous seasons. Coach Joan Ferrer Rubi admitted so in the pre-match news conference: "A couple of players believe it's an uphill battle for us," while adding that "the remaining matches are for men with a strong character."
Arguably the coach does not have many resources to face Real Madrid. The talented Carlos Carmona and the motivated Duje Cop are the only pieces that could unsettle Real Madrid's defence, although the Molinon stadium can also carry the team with their famous stamina and noise if things start off the right foot for them. The Bernabeu faithful will feel cheated, as Barcelona's disappointing signing Douglas, now loaned to Sporting, won't be able to participate due to a niggling injury.
For the locals, Real Madrid's visit might even feel secondary, as Sporting's next match fits the cliche: a final against fellow strugglers Osasuna in Pamplona. However, at this point Rubi's team can't afford to think of their next match. They need any points they can get even if that involves a superhuman effort against Real.
The visit to Gijon may feel like an easy trip and a secondary event with Bayern and Barcelona on the horizon, but Real Madrid will find a fighting Sporting ready to pounce if they show any weaknesses. It's another chance for the team's second unit to show their worth and maintain their advantage over Barcelona.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.