Questions over Zidane's starting XI ahead of Real's UEFA Super Cup test
The rational side of every Real Madrid fan understands Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy, even more after last season's successful finish, when most of the squad looked very close to their best in May and June.
Following that policy, it's very likely the French manager will pick a mixed starting XI for the UEFA Super Cup match against Manchester United on Tuesday evening. Real Madrid's lineup, with a few regular starters and a number of bench players, should be the result of applying the most relevant criteria at this point: getting players into shape, preserving those still with a fragile form and giving playing time to those who need it. Even if this match is worth a trophy, Zidane prefers to finish the season well rather than asking too much too soon of his players.
However, tomorrow is not a regular game, and the average Real Madrid fan knows that well. Judging by what transpires in the media, social media and what he hears from a bunch of close friends, most supporters want Zidane to go for the jugular on Tuesday.
"Leave rotations aside and play your best," they believe. At the end of the day, the opponent is Manchester United, but especially, it's Jose Mourinho sitting on their bench.
The Portuguese manager, true to form, started to heat the match well in advance.
"If Bale does not play tomorrow, I will fight with other clubs who want to sign him," he said on Monday.
The assumption that the Welshman's future depends on Zidane starting him or benching him for this match is obviously preposterous, as Bale, far from his best shape due to a sore ankle, might well be on the bench tomorrow and that would mean nothing. But generating an issue that could unrest the opposition has always been second nature for Mourinho, and he wasn't going to resist this temptation, even if it's the beginning of August.
At this point, Zidane has other headaches. Even if it's a streamlined squad -- four of the six players who did not make the bench of the last Champions League final have already left the team -- he still needs to make hard choices in every match. For Tuesday, Lucas Vazquez, Dani Ceballos or Mateo Kovacic might not even make the bench.
Cristiano Ronaldo is back from his extended vacation, which is excellent news for Zidane, and apparently in decent shape.
"If Cristiano is here with us it means he can play," said Zidane during his news conference on Monday.
The last training session before the final saw the French manager make a few adjustments, and even though his closest aides believe there will be rotations, if one must judge by what happened on Monday in Skopje (Macedonia), the fans will be happy. A starting lineup with the same team that defeated Juventus in Cardiff two months ago, replacing Ronaldo with Bale, could be in the cards to face United.
Of course, the opposition is tough. Mourinho's team evolved during last season, and the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have reinforced key positions for the team in general, but especially important to face Real Madrid.
Zidane's centre-backs have always had difficulties dealing with physical centre-forwards like the Belgian striker, whereas a player such as Matic is mandatory to prevent Toni Kroos and Luka Modric from taking over midfield and finding their forwards in space. Real Madrid's midfield line, its strongest asset last season, will suffer a demanding test against Mourinho's well-designed defensive structure.
Even if it's still early August and neither team is close to their top form, both have enough background and hunger to find the motivation for a considerable effort on Tuesday. With the stadium sold out to watch two European giants, this seems a very fine way for competitive football to come back and open the new season.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.