Real Madrid face familiar foe in opposite dugout against Espanyol
Real Madrid welcome Espanyol, and a familiar face, to the Bernabeu on Sunday night when Zinedine Zidane's side will attempt to arrest a run of results at home that has left the reigning champions seven points adrift of leaders Barcelona with six games played.
The last time Real got off to such a poor start in La Liga was in 1995-96, when they were again holding the title with a young defender in their ranks who had joined the previous summer and became a fixture on the right of a defence that conceded just 29 times en route to the 1994-95 championship: Quique Sanchez Flores.
The current Espanyol manager's second and final campaign at the Bernabeu coincided with an early season collapse that would see the champions eventually limp into sixth place, 17 points behind league winners Atletico Madrid and out of European contention. After one game Real led the table but home defeats to Athletic and Oviedo, followed by draws against Betis and Barcelona and a 4-3 defeat at Mestalla, left the side managed by Jorge Valdano languishing in 15th. Week seven of Liga action brought a 2-1 home victory over Compostela that sparked a run of three wins and the brief hope that Real may recover sufficiently to launch a title defence.
Things are hardly as bad at the Bernabeu in 2017-18, but Zidane will be targeting Sunday's match to kick-start his domestic campaign with a convincing victory over a side that have never got the better of him and have as yet failed to score a single goal against the Frenchman, while losing their last 10 in all competitions against Real.
In his debut half-season at the helm it was a 6-0 victory against Espanyol that brought purring in the Spanish press over Zidane and his reinvention of a side that had been listless and leaderless under Rafa Benitez, who never really fit the company profile despite his sterling work at Castilla.
Sanchez Flores succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid's reserves and his work there garnered similar plaudits, leading to admiring glances from Getafe and later Valencia, who he guided to two consecutive Champions League qualifications. Subsequently, with Benfica and Atletico, Sanchez Flores won a domestic cup and the Europa League, but his career took a bit of nosedive after that in various short-lived enterprises before a renaissance at Watford and a run to the FA Cup semifinals came to an abrupt end in keeping with the owners' modus operandi.
Now, Sanchez Flores seems to have found a home at Espanyol and there is little Alfredo Di Stefano's godson would enjoy more than putting one over on a club that has serially overlooked him for a role with the senior side throughout his managerial career.
Zidane, meanwhile, needs a win. Real's away form has saved face so far this season but a run of three games without victory at home will test even the most patient of Bernabeu season ticket holders. There is an unwritten rule about taking on Madrid on their own turf and it is one that Betis executed to perfection: if a visiting side can keep Real from scoring for an hour there is a tendency towards panic. That panic, in turn, usually opens up spaces for the opposition, something that Pablo Piatti and Gerard Moreno are more than capable of exploiting.
An early goal will be key and two would be even better from Zidane's point of view. So Espanyol can expect an early barrage of attacks and a smothering high press from the hosts. That may lead to a start for Lucas Vazquez, who is Real's best practicer of the art. The decision to select Vazquez will be made easier for Zidane if Gareth Bale is ruled out after an impressive display against Dortmund, the Welshman suffering a muscle problem that is not thought to be serious but will in all likelihood lead to a preventive rest on Sunday.
Cristiano Ronaldo will lead the line and the omens are good for Zidane despite the Portuguese's failure to get off the mark so far in Liga action. There have been precedents: on four occasions since he arrived in Madrid, Ronaldo has failed to hit the net in his first two league outings but opened his account on the third on three occasions.
The last time that Real's record scorer was denied until game three -- delayed this season due to the five-match ban he incurred during the Spanish Super Cup -- was in 2015-16, when he hammered in five against Espanyol in a 6-0 drubbing in Cornella under Benitez, a result that would be matched by Zidane in the return fixture in the Bernabeu with Ronaldo helping himself to a hat-trick.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.