Why Wednesday's Super Cup second leg is a must-win for Real Madrid
At the moment, things are going so well with Real Madrid that their average fan suspects all this can't last.
The team, inspiring at times and resilient others, steps it up whenever required and keeps winning trophies, no matter how transcendent or unimportant they are. The squad have assimilated Zinedine Zidane's simple but effective philosophy and Antonio Pintus' fitness principles and always show a competitive face, no matter who plays.
The midfield generates envy among supporters of any team in world football. And the youngsters, led by the gifted Marco Asensio, show that Madrid's scouting-plus-loan formula works wonders, depicting a future as promising as the recent past has been successful.
What can go wrong? Well, there's always the upcoming match against Barcelona to mess things around a bit.
After a convincing 3-1 win at the Camp Nou that has the Barcelonistas calling for their president to leave, the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup at the Santiago Bernabeu shows no upside for Real Madrid. It's in fact a chance for the visitors to recover some of their pride and start the season in a slightly better place than the one they're at right now. A win in Madrid, even if it's too short to give them the title, would give Barcelona some confidence to face the next few months, so coach Ernesto Valverde will very likely employ his best available squad to get a result at the Bernabeu.
Even with such a large advantage after the first leg, neither Zidane nor his squad can take this match lightly. No Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match is ever a formality, and its result can always have an impact on the on-going balance of power -- currently strongly tipped towards the Madridistas' side. Therefore, the French manager will have to field a side that somehow maintains their competitiveness, even if he introduces a couple of players off the bench to keep his squad fresh and his rotation policy alive and kicking.
The Bernabeu faithful will want blood, as they see their arch-rival weakened after Neymar's unexpected exit and complaining about the lack of much needed reinforcements demanded by the public and, lately, even by respected players such as Sergio Busquets.
It's then time to add another win over Barcelona and prevent them from getting the bit of fresh air they badly need after such a convoluted summer. For that, it's very likely that Luka Modric will come back to the starting line-up, replacing the dynamic but injured Mateo Kovacic. The latter's energy, having performed admirable defensive work on Lionel Messi in the first leg, will be sorely missed at the Bernabeu, but it's obvious that the former gives Real Madrid better control of possession and more menace up front.
It would not be surprising if Zidane rested Isco Alarcon, always one of the main targets of his rotations, and adds some more steel in midfield. Next to Modric and the indispensable Casemiro, Toni Kroos should also start as he progresses remarkably in his fitness.
The big questions raise up front. With Cristiano Ronaldo very likely out despite Zidane's hopes, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema seem bound to have another chance to get more playing time and improve their shape, something that is key for Real Madrid in this beginning of the season.
The transfer of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea and Ronaldo's ban demand that the two Bs of the BBC recover their scoring prowess sooner rather than later, as Zidane's team needs as many goals as they can get from the duo.
From the bench looking in, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez might also make the team. They both look in optimal shape, and their work rate and incisiveness moving forward tend to unsettle Barcelona. Especially Asensio, growing in gravitas and impact with each passing match, who looks destined to bigger and better things. It's up to Zidane to dose than transition between supersub and starter, but the kid's talent is so obvious that most of the stadium now wants to see him play in every match.
One only needs to take a look at history to see that every derby has the power to change the status quo and send one seemingly unstoppable winning team into a full-blown crisis, or give the previously demoralised side an injection of morale. Wednesday must be viewed and played by Real Madrid as a must-win match. The time to relax and enjoy the summer is over.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.