Real Madrid riding high, but care-free Sevilla could be dangerous foe
The last few matches in each La Liga season treasure a decent amount of surprises. Teams playing for nothing outperform themselves, teams competing for Champions League football suddenly look like relegation candidates, and relegation candidates often put together a final push that gets them off the hook when everybody expected them to drop.
Fourth-place Sevilla are the most dangerous type of rival -- an extremely talented group with nothing to play for. Five points behind Atletico Madrid, they can't possibly catch them, and six points above Villarreal, they need just one point in two matches to guarantee their fourth position. When a gifted team such as Sevilla shake off the pressure and play just to enjoy themselves, they can become mighty rivals for any side, including Real Madrid.
Jorge Sampaoli, apparently bound to coach the Argentina national team when this season ends, will want to leave the club with a famous win. And his team, still frustrated with the elimination at the hands of Leicester City in the round of 16 of the Champions League, will aim for an upset at the Santiago Bernabeu to say goodbye to the season on a high note.
The current Sevilla squad is not designed to defend and speculate with a result. They have excelled going for the kill against opposing teams regardless of their size, following Sampaoli's creed of intense, attacking performances.
For Sevilla's trip to Madrid, the Argentine manager will be able to count on Vitolo and Sergio Escudero, who did not make the list in a home draw against Real Sociedad last weekend. However, Sampaoli will miss the handy Vicente Iborra, the gifted Pablo Sarabia and hard-working fullback Mariano Ferreira.
While Sevilla negotiate terms with Celta's Eduardo Berizzo to replace Sampaoli next season, Real Madrid enjoy their honeymoon with Zinedine Zidane. Having taken the club to two Champions League finals in both years as manager, and with an impressive La Liga record since he took over in January 2016, the calm Frenchman is enjoying the results of his easy-going approach, although there are still four matches between him and a glorious season in terms of silverware.
Sevilla look like the toughest remaining rival in Zidane's quest for the coveted La Liga title. He needs his team to get their focus back on the domestic competition, after the eventful semi-final against Atletico de Madrid and the upcoming final against Juventus have monopolised headlines and players' attention throughout the week.
For Sunday's match, Zidane will rotate again. Even though the Champions League final is three weeks away, the team will play against Celta in midweek and at Malaga next weekend, so we'll very likely see a mixed side in the last match of the season at the Bernabeu, in order to preserve some starters for the final two games.
Sevilla command respect, so it's likely that the midfield trio, with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, keep their places. The Croatian, obviously happy after his outstanding display at the Vicente Calderon, stated this week that he feels in his best shape of the season and that this makes things easier for him to deliver this kind of performance.
Zidane probably will rotate the forward line. James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata will have their chance to bid goodbye to the Bernabeu faithful, right before a summer that may take them elsewhere. Other bench players, such as Mateo Kovacic and Mariano, should enjoy some playing time in the second half. Raphael Varane, feeling some muscular discomfort, might be rested by Zidane.
If the midfield battle tends to be key in most matches, it is indisputably the most important one to be won when facing a Sampaoli team. Sevilla's high press and the stamina of their midfielders -- Steven N'Zonzi and Franco Vazquez excel at this -- demand plenty of effort from any opposing team, not only to control the ball, but also to avoid any mistakes that could swiftly turn into a scoring chance for Sevilla.
After an extremely demanding match at the Calderon, Sampaoli's team, fresh and almost free of responsibility, will test Real Madrid's determination to win the La Liga title. The Champions League final should not distract Zidane's men of this goal, the most important one to claim the label of best Spanish team of the season.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.