Real Madrid under pressure vs. Malaga as they try to keep pace with Barcelona
Zinedine Zidane made all the right noises about his side's chances in La Liga after victory against Espanyol two weeks ago. "We know that we are trailing," the Frenchman said. "We are four points behind, and that could rise to seven. It is difficult but we are doing our work and I expect a lot out of La Liga. It is not over yet. It is difficult, but not impossible."
The manager's words hardly oozed confidence and fairly so. Zidane took over from Rafa Benitez with Real in third place and four points adrift of Barcelona. Benitez's final game in charge was a 2-2 draw at the Mestalla, while Luis Enrique's side had been held 0-0 by Espanyol. Until last week, Zidane had maintained that status quo, but while Real were busy in the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday beating Roma, Barca moved seven points clear of his side with a 3-1 victory in Gijon. That game in hand has been the big "what if" of Real's title challenge since December, when Benitez was still in charge.
Now the task of overhauling the reigning champions has become closer to impossible than difficult. A seven-point gap is quite a chasm when a trip to Camp Nou and the visit of Atletico next week are taken into consideration. Barcelona have already played Diego Simeone's side twice, and have beaten them twice. Failure on Real's part to do so in the Bernabeu next Saturday will effectively hand the title to Barcelona with 12 games to go, since the trickiest away game the leaders have left is at Villarreal.
By the time Real step out on to the turf at La Rosaleda to play Malaga on Sunday afternoon, Barcelona could be 10 points ahead of them. A trip to Las Palmas is not without its problems and Barca play Arsenal in the Champions League next week so Luis Enrique is likely to make a few changes. But few would bet on an upset. In Real's case, Malaga present a tough away day and Zidane also has personnel issues of his own.
Marcelo was able to play in Rome only with the aid of pain-killing injections and Raphael Varane is suspended against Malaga after his sending off for two bookable offences last weekend in the victory over Athletic. Real appealed against the ban but were rebuffed by the league's disciplinary committee. Gareth Bale is definitely ruled out and James Rodriguez is also struggling with a shoulder problem and may start from the bench. Meanwhile, Pepe remains on the sidelines with a foot problem. Zidane will hope to have as many as possible of his squad fully fit for the derby, which may incline the Frenchman towards giving Marcelo a rest on Sunday.
Malaga, meanwhile, have had plenty of rest in the last week and are one of the division's form sides, having won six of their last 10. During that run Javi Gracia's side put in a solid display against Barcelona at La Rosaleda, using the compact 4-4-2 that the Malaga coach has settled on to squeeze the visitors in the middle of the pitch and press high when not in possession. Barca struggled to find any sort of rhythm and it took a Leo Messi goal to eventually separate the sides.
Real can fully expect the same treatment. With Nacho coming into the centre of defence for Varane, Sergio Ramos will have to marshal his partner against what can be an awkward and unpredictable Malaga front line. Los Boquerones have not suffered too much from the loss of mercurial playmaker Nordin Amrabat and reinforced well in January, bringing in Ikechukwu Uche among other new faces on loan from Tigres to lend an extra option behind top scorer Charles and battering-ram veteran sub Roque Santa Cruz. Croatian forward Duje Cop has only found the net once since his summer loan move from Dinamo Zagreb but his movement in and around the box is designed to pull defenders out of position, hence his 13 starts this season.
Malaga's strong point is in midfield, where Duda and Ignacio Camacho take few prisoners, although the captain has seen his pitch time reduced in recent weeks. The emergence of 22-year-old Venezuelan attacking midfielder Juanpi has also been a cause for joy at La Rosaleda, which has become all too accustomed to seeing its best talent cherry-picked every summer.
Zidane knows this will be a tough match and will probably opt for Mateo Kovacic in midfield again alongside Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. The Croatia international was handed his chance against Athletic and took it, and he is rapidly becoming the Real manager's 12th man. The extra cover Kovacic provides with his defensive instinct may be invaluable against a side who have no reason to sit back; Malaga are 10 points clear of trouble and looking up, not down. Real can afford no slip-ups on the south coast this weekend and could do with Cristiano Ronaldo adding a league away goal to the one he scored in Rome, his first away from the Bernabeu since November.
To do that, Ronaldo will have to get past the hugely underrated Carlos Kameni, something that Real were unable to do when the sides met in Madrid last September. Kameni was colossal that afternoon, making eight saves from Real's nine shots on target to earn a 0-0 draw for his team.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.