Zidane and Real will need goals vs. Sevilla to offset a depleted backline
Real Madrid host Sevilla at the Bernabeu on Saturday in the knowledge that this could prove to be another pivotal weekend in their pursuit of a successful fightback in their title defence.
Barcelona travel to the Estadio de la Ceramica to play Villarreal on Sunday, where a positive result is far from assured for the Liga leaders, and Zinedine Zidane will be only too aware that the added pressure of a reduced deficit at the top must be applied a day earlier.
Historically, Sevilla fare pretty well against Real but have suffered recently on their travels to the capital, conceding four or more goals in four of their last five visits to the Bernabeu. Circumstances suggest this will be another high-scoring affair.
Zidane has not so much a headache going into Saturday's game as a full-blown defensive migraine caused by the suspended trio of Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal, whose varied colours of card in last weekend's attritional battle in San Mames ensured they will sit out the Sevilla fixture. Additionally, Raphael Varane suffered another injury in midweek against Dortmund and will not be available, leaving Zidane with a patching up job to do: Only Nacho and Marcelo among his senior defenders are available to play.
The rest of Real's back line will be staffed by two of Jesus Vallejo, Achraf Hakimi and Theo Hernandez -- not the most reassuring arrangement from the home support's point of view. Vallejo passed a late fitness test and Zidane will throw the youngster back into the breach after his mauling at the hands of Malaga's attack two weeks ago -- which may have been the reason he was omitted from the Club World Cup squad -- having resisted the temptation to call up Castilla prospect Manu Hernando, who featured against Fuenlabrada in the Copa del Rey.
Trusted Zidane lieutenant Alvaro Tejero probably would have at least made the bench, but he also is suspended due to an accumulation of cards with Castilla. That leaves Zidane with numerous problems, of which who to put on the pitch is one.
The Frenchman is not a fan of a back three and probably will not try anything as experimental in a game as important as Saturday's, so it is a case of trying to find square pegs for square holes. He certainly will look to Marcelo to try to captain the makeshift back line into some sort of coherence.
Marcos Llorente has played at centre half before, but the little-used summer signing may be required to play as a second holding midfielder alongside Mateo Kovacic, given the vulnerability of Zidane's defence. The Real boss has options, even if none of them are entirely satisfactory to anybody other than Sevilla's attack.
Saturday's visitors are an evolving side, gradually becoming accustomed to Eduardo Berizzo's more settled style after the tactically eclectic reign of Jorge Sampaoli, who rarely played the same formation twice and often used a 3-3-3-1 last season among his many innovations. Under the combustible Argentinean, Sevilla briefly threatened a title charge but tailed off toward the end of the season, partly because of constant rumours linking Sampaoli with the Argentina job.
Still, he forged a team spirit through his blood-and-thunder management style that remains intact under the more composed Berizzo, whose side have been galvanised further in recent weeks after the news that their manager had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Berizzo's attempt to implant the free-flowing style of his Celta side initially brought mixed results as the squad adapted to an unfamiliar 4-1-4-1 system, but recently Sevilla have produced some eye-catching results, not least coming back from 3-0 down against Liverpool in the Champions League while also dispatching Berizzo's former club and Villarreal in La Liga.
They are harder to score against now and lethal on the break -- a Berizzo hallmark that Celta still carry -- with the in-form Wissam Ben Yedder spearheading the attack. Supported by Nolito, Jesus Navas, Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa, Sevilla arguably boast the strongest attacking line in Spain outside of the Bernabeu and Camp Nou.
It remains to be seen how the exile of Steven N'Zonzi plays out in the long term, but Sevilla have not suffered unduly in the France international's absence, largely due to a splendid bit of summer business in landing the very effective Guido Pizarro from Tigres.
Berizzo's assistant, Ernesto Marcucci, currently is in charge of first-team affairs and has proven adept at carrying his boss' ethos out on the pitch. The return to action of key defender Simon Kjaer against Maribor was extremely timely for Sevilla, but Saturday's game may be a straight end-to-end shootout, a case of scoring one more than the opposition.
Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to be in the mood to oblige after picking up his fifth Ballon d'Or in Paris on Thursday evening. The Portuguese has scored 23 goals in 14 Liga appearances against Sevilla -- no side have been more abused by the Real No. 7 during his career. Zidane will be hoping for more of the same on Saturday to counter Sevilla's assault on his makeshift back four.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.