Should Zinedine Zidane start Gareth Bale against Juventus if he is fit?
Full of joy after their 33rd La Liga title, the Real Madrid squad must now focus on the last challenge of their season: the Champions League final in Cardiff. A victory over Serie A winners Juventus in Wales would take what already is a fantastic year to phenomenal heights. The club have not won the Liga-European Cup double since 1958, and a 12th title in the latter competition would open a huge gap between Real Madrid and their followers, AC Milan, who own seven trophies.
Most supporters understandably believe that Zinedine Zidane has found the right lineup and does not need to tinker too much with it for June 3. With the addition of Isco, the side has won more presence in midfield, better participation from Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, and an extraordinary passer in the final third by the diminutive midfielder from Malaga. Isco can find the in-form Cristiano Ronaldo in space better than anyone else in the squad.
The side's conditioning is as good as one can remember, thanks to Antonio Pintus, so assuming that the injured Daniel Carvajal is back, the starting XI would therefore include Keylor Navas; Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Isco in a free role; Karim Benzema and Ronaldo.
However, a section of the media believes that Zidane is pondering whether to use Gareth Bale as a starter in Cardiff if the Welshman recovers from his injury. They do so with a mixture of shock and indignation. The traditional conspiracy theories -- including mysterious messages from the presidency -- have been repeated ad nauseam to explain the French coach's insistence on starting Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. But the fact is that, when he took over, Zidane stated that he'd use all three whenever they were in shape over any other offensive combination, and he's done just that.
So far, results have mostly proven him right with one exception: Bale's comeback after four months following he injury he sustained in late November against Sporting Lisbon. The Wales international simply did not manage to regain full fitness, and his poor performances before he picked up his most recent injury -- against Barcelona in April -- made the contrast with Isco's subsequent starts much sharper.
But that was not Bale. At least not the version that kept the team going for the final push in La Liga last season, or the one that could take advantage of opposing defences paying a bit too much attention to Ronaldo or Benzema with darting runs and long-distance crackers.
The team shows more balance and better control of the match with a fourth midfielder, be it Isco on a free role, James in a similar position or even Marco Asensio as a left winger. However, there is indeed a case for Bale to start against Juventus, and the rationale for it has to do with Juve's Dani Alves.
The former Barcelona player, in theory a right full-back, has gone back to his Sevilla years since he joined Juventus. His influence on proceedings from his supposedly peripheral position is again disproportionate. In this season's Champions League, he leads Juventus in assists (four in 10 matches), is their second-best player in passes given per match, and is the best starter in passing percentage (87.9 percent). Disconnecting Alves from the rest of the team is key to making life difficult for Juventus.
Defensively, Alves is not the same player of yore, although he looks in better shape than in some of his final seasons with Barcelona. However, the best way to prevent him from moving forward and getting involved in Juventus' build-up game is to have a constant threat behind him, and that is when Bale comes into the picture.
Few players seem as threatening on the left wing as Bale when he's in shape. His speed, his crossing and his shooting can frustrate the best defenders, and of course should keep Alves quite busy. Preventing the Brazilian from participating in the match and taking advantage of one of his occasional defensive lapses would justify that Zidane used Bale from the beginning. Asensio and Isco would then become options to change things off the bench if necessary.
Of course, all this assumes that the Welsh forward, obviously psyched to play a Champions League final in his home town, recovers his form in the next 10 days. No one wants to see a replay of the Barcelona match, in which a clearly unfit Bale played poorly and left the pitch injured after 38 minutes. It's up to Zidane to decide. The stakes are the highest possible, but the Frenchman has shown extraordinary judgement so far. He just needs to keep it up for one more match.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.