Zidane's legitimate case for benching Ronaldo and Benzema vs. Atletico
Zinedine Zidane has several questions to ask himself ahead of the Madrid derby on Saturday but chief among them should be: form or favouritism?
Real Madrid travel across town to the Metropolitano eight points adrift of leaders Barcelona and four behind Marcelino's revitalised Valencia to play an Atletico side in similar straits to the reigning champions. Neither team is scoring freely, Atletico appear to have forgotten how to defend crosses while Real have scored just one header this season, from the unlikely source of Casemiro in the 3-0 victory over Las Palmas. Both sides also have misfiring star forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann.
The possibility is that if either Atletico or Real miraculously rediscover last season's verve on Saturday, the opposing side may be put to the sword. Memories of Real's wretched Calderon capitulation under Carlo Ancelotti in February 2015 will not be far from Zidane's thoughts.
That leaves the Real boss with a choice to make: persist with a watered-down cocktail of mediocrity or shake things up with some youthful spirit.
Isco and Marco Asensio are the side's top scorers in the league, with eight goals and five assists between them. The Spain internationals have been two of few glimmers of light amid the gathering Bernabeu gloom and Dani Ceballos remains untainted by association.
The former Betis midfielder rescued another flat performance against Alaves with both strikes in a 2-1 win but his reward was as predictable as Ronaldo hammering a free kick into the stands: He has started just one Liga game since, the gentle 3-0 home victory over Eibar.
Zidane's front six in the Mendizorrotza Stadium featured Casemiro, Isco, Ceballos, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez and Ronaldo. They did not play Alaves off the pitch but the performance was punctuated by flashes of cooperative skill that were utterly absent a week earlier when Betis smashed and grabbed three points in the Bernabeu. The lineup then? Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Ronaldo has been on the losing side eight times in the derby but has still managed 21 goals across 28 games in all competitions -- only Sevilla have suffered more at the Portuguese's pleasure. Benzema has scored three against the cross-city rivals, all away from home. By contrast Isco has faced Atletico 23 times during his career and has managed just a single goal -- albeit the one that ended the Rojiblancos' resistance in the Champions League semifinals last season.
But there is no question who the form player at Real Madrid currently is. Ronaldo has been uncharacteristically out of sorts in the league, scoring just once in seven appearances. Any other player would not be guaranteed a start in such a crucial fixture. But amid rumours, however spurious, of disaffection in the No. 7's camp that is a political hot potato that Zidane will not pick up in the Metropolitano. Benzema has hardly been playing with panache, but the grim reality for Madrid supporters on Saturday is that they will both start regardless.
There has always been a hierarchy at Real Madrid in which a clique of players expect their place on the basis of their standing in the squad. It seemed Zidane would be the coach to break that mould, preferring internal promotions and the purchase of youth to big-money signings. But increasingly this season the Frenchman appears in thrall to his senior stars.
Ceballos returned to Valdebebas this week with an under-21 hat trick against Slovakia to his name while Asensio helped himself to a first international assist and Isco took his club form into the Costa Rica game, until Kendall Watson ended another masterclass with a brutal challenge. All are fit for the derby and Zidane could profit from finding room in the starting 11 for all three. Modric has looked jaded despite the occasional rest and Kroos is failing to hit the heights of last season. Ceballos has looked sharper than both in his fleeting appearances.
Losing Gareth Bale to another injury has placed the "BBC" debate to one side, at least until December's Bernabeu Clasico. But the other two components should not be guaranteed a start or the full 90 against Atletico. With two league goals and four assists between them in 1,110 combined minutes, a dramatic improvement should be the minimum requirement for Benzema or Ronaldo to last past the 70-minute mark on Saturday; removing the Portuguese from the fray in recent Liga outings could have been regarded as an act of mercy.
If Zidane's Plan A fails to get the upper hand quickly on Saturday he must trust what he has up his sleeve. Defeat against a misfiring Atletico will all but end Madrid's title defence in November. Surrendering limply without at least underlining performances, not prominence, are what sends out the kind of message that has prompted a farewell email from Florentino Perez in the past.
Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes: this will be the 20th Madrid derby in all competitions since February 2014. If Real slip further behind in their title defence with the same faces labouring around in stoppage time, Zidane can expect to be held to account on Sunday morning.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.