Real Madrid face tricky Getafe test as Cristiano Ronaldo eyes return to form
Real Madrid return to action after an enthralling international break and find themselves squinting at the back of Barcelona from a distance of seven points. While that deficit is not insurmountable, Madrid cannot afford to fall further behind the pace-setters.
Ahead of his 100th match in charge of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane's selection options are boosted by the return of key combinations across the pitch.
Marcelo has returned from a muscle strain and subject to post-international break rotation from Zidane, the Brazilian will resume his role on the left. Nacho covered admirably for the 29-year-old -- who has received a well-deserved Ballon d'Or nomination -- but Real Madrid have missed his creative influence. Marcelo's understanding with Casemiro -- who was unlucky to not receive a Ballon d'Or nomination himself -- is an under-appreciated driving force behind Madrid's attacking play.
Further up the pitch, Karim Benzema's return to training will have seen a sigh of relief from Cristiano Ronaldo, who is yet to score in La Liga. Real Madrid supporters often malign the Frenchman for his goal-scoring record which, given his rate of 122 goals in 228 games, is a curious stick to beat him with.
One cannot dispute the service he provides his Portuguese companion, though. Benzema delivers chances to Ronaldo on a silver platter. In fact, no player has assisted Ronaldo more since he joined the club from Manchester United. Real Madrid's No. 7 has misplaced his incisive touch in front of goal recently and Benzema is the man to bring the best out of him.
A trip to Getafe -- against whom Ronaldo has scored 20 goals in 12 matches -- appears the ideal tonic to his goal scoring woes. But the Coliseum Alfonso Perez is a problematic ground for Real Madrid. In 12 visits since Getafe were first promoted to the first division in 2004, Madrid have emerged with just 22 points from a possible 36. They have a worse record at just four other clubs: Barcelona, Sevilla, Deportivo and Villarreal.
El Geta have re-adapted to life in La Liga with relative ease after bouncing back from relegation via the playoffs at the first time of asking and Pepe Bordalas' team sit in 12th position, despite falling to defeat against Deportivo at Riazor before the international break.
The pitch at the Coliseum has generated controversy in recent weeks, too. Barcelona complained about the length of the turf following their victory earlier in the season, and suggested that the playing surface may have contributed to the injury to Ousmane Dembele.
Getafe president Angel Torres has vociferously denied the accusations, while La Liga have confirmed that the length of the grass complies with their rules. That said, it would not come as a surprise if the home groundsman uses the sprinkler system frugally before the match.
Getafe's stadium since 1998 straddles the verge of the M45 motorway, separated from the town itself by a no-man's land of parking spaces. Much of Getafe is prim and well ordered, with neat rows of duplicate houses decorating tree-lined streets, and there are parallels between the tidiness of the town and the team that represents it.
Pepe Bordalas -- who is trying his hand in the top division after 24-years spanning 15 different managerial posts -- has forged a compact, well-organised unit.
His team have conceded seven goals this season. Only five teams have picked the ball out of their own net fewer times; Real Madrid have only conceded one less. And with an average of 40.4 percent of possession -- the lowest in La Liga -- Getafe are a team comfortable without the ball.
So in a match where Real are likely to dominate possession against methodical, counter-attacking opposition, Zidane's team will need to demonstrate a different set of qualities. The champions must show guile, intelligence and patience to deliver a record-breaking 13th consecutive away victory in La Liga.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93