Zidane has two more juggling tests to ace to get Real Madrid the title
Ahead of the 2015-16 season, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said La Liga was "dangerously set up" for Real Madrid to claim their first title in four years. Simeone's prediction was designed to apply pressure to his capital city rival, and under previous Real coach Rafa Benitez, those words certainly had the desired effect, as the Spaniard lasted less than six months in the Bernabeu pressure cooker.
A season later, Simeone's words have come home to roost. While the Atletico boss cannot be accused of suggesting the fixture list favours Real Madrid under a governing body that sees fit to announce kickoffs only a few weeks in advance, in 2016-17 events beyond the control of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional have played out perfectly for Real coach Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid travel to Vigo to play Celta on Wednesday in a game originally slated for the beginning of February, but the match was postponed due to storm conditions in Galicia.
Celta provided a storm of their own a week earlier by knocking Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey 4-3 on aggregate, a 2-2 draw in Balaidos sealing the tie in the Celestes' favour. At that stage of the campaign, coach Eduardo Berizzo's Celta side were capable of beating anyone on their day and were still going strong in Europe. If Real had faced that version of Celta, they may now be three points behind Barcelona with one game remaining.
In defeat against Alaves last weekend, Celta showed all the signs of a team ready to put a season that once promised so much behind them as quickly as possible.
Celta's Copa run ended at the semifinal stage against Alaves, and last week in the Europa League semis, Manchester United thwarted Celta's second shot at a first final of any kind in the club's history. Real Madrid may have two cup finals left to play this season, but the tears of Celta striker Iago Aspas on the Old Trafford turf after teammate John Guidetti missed a golden opportunity in the 96th minute effectively signalled the curtain call for Celta's season.
The home side may find a last reserve of magic against Real on Wednesday, but Zidane has to approach the match with a careful eye on Malaga. There is margin for error in Real's title challenge: four points from the six left in play will be enough, but Zidane will be mindful of the risk factor in leaving too much to chance in La Rosaleda, where Malaga coach Michel, the legendary Real midfielder, has staged a stunning revival of the club's fortunes.
Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla have all been beaten on the Costa del Sol in recent weeks, and despite some fatuous frothing in the Catalan press over the potential for Michel to oversee a parade for his old side, in the real world he would like nothing better than for his Anchovies to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of a club he has had nothing to do with since falling out with the Bernabeu hierarchy a decade ago after a brief spell in charge of the academy.
Zidane faces a balancing act in Balaidos, a ground Barcelona left earlier this season on the wrong end of a 4-3 score line. Star striker Cristiano Ronaldo is one caution away from a ban that would rule him out in La Rosaleda, while Nacho is suspended after an unsuccessful appeal against a yellow card given in Real's victory over Sevilla. Isco and Lucas Vazquez are also walking the disciplinary tightrope, and Zidane may elect to rest these two and Ronaldo ahead of the trip to Malaga, which on paper is by far the tougher of Real's two remaining fixtures.
Marcelo will return to the side having been rested against Sevilla, and pairing him with Marco Asensio on the left should be Zidane's gambit. The Real manager's insistence on the importance of his entire squad has created not one but two very good sides, both capable of seeing out games even when the Frenchman has made nine changes from one match to the next.
No squad member has taken his opportunity in more emphatic style this season than Asensio, who at the outset of the campaign might have expected a significantly quieter role than he has been handed. Others have stepped up to the plate when required, and whichever side Zidane puts out in Balaidos, he will be confident of victory against an understandably demoralised Celta, who were a kick away from a European final a week ago.
Victory in Vigo would leave Zidane and Real Madrid a single point away from a first Liga title since 2011-12. In view of the Michel revolution underway at La Rosaleda, that would be a sensible insurance policy.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.