Real Madrid internationals return from break ready for La Liga duty
The Real Madrid squad have filtered back to the Spanish capital after the international break diaspora flung them far and wide.
Seventeen of Zinedine Zidane's players amassed a total of 128,500 kilometers travelling to and from international duty. Had Jesus Vallejo and Raphael Varane not been kept at home by injury, the number of foreign ambassadors would have increased.
"I hope that upon their return, all the players will be available," Zidane said before his players flew the nest.
His wish appears to have been granted. Concerning images emerged as the sun set over Toledo's medieval skyline on Saturday evening, as stretcher bearers carried Dani Ceballos from the pitch in a neck brace during Spain Under-21's victory over their Italian counterparts. The 20-year-old had complained of nausea and dizziness but recovered from the scare to feature for La Rojita four days later.
The media in Madrid generally views the international break with mild disdain. "The FIFA Virus" is a phrase that often decorates the daily sports newspapers. It is presented as an affliction; a villainous monster that swoops down, plucks Madrid's players and puts them at unnecessary risk in faraway lands. Yet the negative trope does not fit with this round of international fixtures. Quite the contrary.
The international break came at the perfect time for Cristiano Ronaldo, who boosted his match fitness in victories against the Faroe Islands and Hungary. Portugal's commitments at the Confederations Cup meant he missed the bulk of preseason, and he shoved himself into suspension for the early stages of La Liga with an inexcusable display of petulance in the Spanish Super Cup victory over Barcelona, pushing the referee after receiving a second yellow card.
The 32-year-old scored three of Portugal's goals in a 5-1 victory over the Faroe Islands. While a hat trick should never be sniffed at, two of Madrid's fledgling internationals enjoyed the most fruitful international breaks.
Achraf Hakimi -- Dani Carvajal's heir apparent -- marked his competitive debut for Morocco with a goal in the 6-0 demolition of Mali. The 18-year-old is yet to pull on the white shirt of Madrid in a competitive fixture, but the rigours of a World Cup qualification campaign will certainly aid his preparation.
Yet one Madrid player stood out above the rest as the race for Russia enters its closing stage. Fede Valverde -- a string-pulling midfielder signed from Penarol last summer -- marked his full debut for Uruguay with a goal in La Celeste's 2-1 victory over Paraguay. The teenager gained notoriety when he scored from inside his own half in a preseason match for Deportivo, where he will spend the 2017-18 season on loan. But it was earlier in the summer -- at the Under-20 World Cup -- where he showcased the full repertoire of his abilities. That Real Madrid have loaned out such a capable player is demonstrative of the abundance of young talent in midfield. This time next year, Valverde will be mentioned in the same breath as Ceballos and Marcos Llorente.
Attention now swiftly turns to the domestic scene, and the visit of newly-promoted Levante to the Bernabeu for a lunchtime kickoff on Saturday.
Levante cantered to the Segunda Division title last season, winning the league by 14 points. Les Granotes have carried that momentum into the current campaign, beating Villarreal on the opening day and consolidating that result with a draw against Deportivo.
International call-ups have also affected Juan Muniz' preparations. Enis Bardhi impressed at the Under-21 European Championship and now forms part of the senior Macedonia team. The No. 10 cost Levante a mere €1.5 million when he joined from Ujpest in July, which represents one of the best deals of the summer in La Liga. In a bloated transfer market where the concept of value has become warped, that figure is back-of-the-sofa change for many clubs. The visiting team will be without wide-midfielder Jose Luis Morales, who is serving a suspension.
"Morales' absence is more important for us that Ronaldo's is for Real Madrid," club president Cuico Catalan told Radio Marca.
Catalan insists that La Liga survival is the objective. Yet a positive result at the Bernabeu will provoke wistful, over-the-shoulder glances to the relative glory days between 2011-13, when Levante finished sixth in La Liga and progressed to the last 16 of the Europa League the following season. Levante forayed in to European competition with a certain Keylor Navas as goalkeeper.
The Costa Rican was the last member of Zidane's squad to return to Madrid, having played for his country in a 1-1 draw against Mexico in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Navas' return signals the passing of the so-called "FIFA Virus". But if Zidane wanted a period of recuperation, he will be disappointed; the match against Levante is the first of a gruelling run of seven in 22 days.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93