After 2016-17's heroics, Real Madrid's B-team struggling to find A-game
Pepe Mel ruefully chuckled as he delivered the parting comment of his postmatch interview. It was the only time he broke into something approaching a smile.
"This is going to sound controversial, but I prefer Real Madrid B to Real Madrid A. It's harder to beat Real Madrid B than Real Madrid A," the Deportivo La Coruña manager said after Madrid waltzed to a 6-2 victory at Riazor in April with an ostensibly weakened team.
Alvaro Morata opened the scoring on the Galician coast within the first minute of an emphatic victory that saw the reputation of manager Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy swell. Mel's appraisal demonstrated that the line between Real Madrid's star men and fringe players had become faded. An online poll run by Marca asked readers whether Real Madrid B would beat Real Madrid A, and a remarkable 74 percent of 29,000 voters decided that yes, they would. Perhaps Mel was not being quite as controversial as he thought.
In the previous match, Barcelona had inflicted a dramatic home defeat on Real Madrid. The Bernabeu was Lionel Messi's stage that evening. The Argentine scored the winning goal with an unerring left-footed shot. His celebration -- displaying the name on the back of his shirt to the home crowd -- made the moment iconic. Zidane responded by making nine changes for the mid-week visit to Deportivo. Despite the overhaul, the team did not just retain balance and fluidity, they had more. The Frenchman constantly shuffled his pack as he led Los Blancos to domestic and European titles. While the personnel changed, the rhythm and the swagger remained.
Zidane faces the challenge of rediscovering that potent formula after a Real Madrid side sprinkled with fringe players failed to beat newly promoted Levante at the Bernabeu on Saturday. Significant rotation caused a lack of cohesion, which was particularly evident in the middle of the pitch, where Marcos Llorente and Toni Kroos were disjointed at the base of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The rotation will continue. "I'm not going to change," Zidane confirmed after the 1-1 draw with Levante. "I make decisions and that won't change just because of one bad game. I believe in what I'm doing."
The prevailing message from the local press is that Madrid's sluggish start to the La Liga season -- particularly at home, where they have picked up two points from a possible six -- does not mean that rotation is conceptually flawed. Former Madrid player Alvaro Benito encapsulated the general mood in AS:
"With or without rotations, there are days when you are not sharp and things do not go as you want, but rotations are still necessary."
As the draw against Levante was the first of seven matches in 22 days for Real Madrid, "necessary" is the operative word.
Yet Zinedine Zidane may not have the luxury of a full rotation in attack. Karim Benzema limped off with a knee injury during the first half of the match on Saturday, and is expected to be sidelined for a month. The French striker is yet to score this season, and his replacement against Levante -- Gareth Bale -- was wasteful in front of goal.
Meanwhile, the two strikers that Madrid sold during the summer are flourishing on foreign soil. Alvaro Morata has started life at Chelsea with three goals in his first four games, while Mariano has scored four in five for Lyon. With Borja Mayoral left out of the squad altogether at the weekend, Marca scrutinised Real Madrid's decision to let both of those players leave without a replacement arriving.
The return of Cristiano Ronaldo for the mid-week visit of APOEL will partially allay concerns about attacking bite. The Portuguese star has not yet completed the five-match ban incurred for pushing the referee in Madrid's Spanish Super Cup victory over Barcelona, but it does not apply to European competition. Zidane already has confirmed that Ronaldo will play.
Giorgos Donis, who took over as APOEL manager in July 2017, acknowledged that "we won't be able to have much of the ball, so we have to think about how to play better defensively," as the parking sensors on the proverbial bus bleeped in to action.
The Cypriot champions visit Real Madrid for a second time. They previously travelled to the Spanish capital for a Champions League quarterfinal in 2012. Madrid abruptly halted APOEL's soiree to the latter stages of European competition, with a 3-0 win in Cyprus followed up by a 5-2 drubbing at the Bernabeu. A similar result five years on would be timely as Madrid continue the search for their rhythm.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93