Real Madrid's congested fixture list should give Morata, Asensio a chance
Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid took a huge step towards the Champions League quarterfinal with a 3-1 win over Napoli at the Bernabeu, a good sign as they seek to become the first side to successfully defend Europe's highest club honour since AC Milan in 1990.
The margin of victory is enough to make Madrid clear favourites to advance. Conceding an away goal was not ideal but there's sufficient reason for optimism in the Real camp going into the match at the San Paolo on March 7: there has not been a single game in all competitions this season in which Zidane's side have failed to score. If that statistic is maintained in Naples, it's difficult to see the home team staging a comeback.
In the meantime, Real face a gruelling run of fixtures in La Liga. Zidane benefitted from the postponement of the league game in Vigo two weekends ago, which afforded an extra few days to clear the treatment table ahead of the Napoli match. It also meant that a fairly soft home fixture against Osasuna was all Real had to contend with in the interim; it gave Real a chance to hand vital minutes to injury returnees while also conveniently wiping Toni Kroos' card suspension for a less demanding fixture than the trip to Balaidos.
However, Real's resources are to be tested to the limit in a run of five Liga fixtures in just two weeks, beginning with this Saturday's visit of Espanyol.
Between now and March 4, Zidane's side will travel to Mestalla for the rescheduled trip against Valencia, El Madrigal to face Villarreal and to in-form Eibar at their singular Ipurua stadium. The visit of Las Palmas completes a hectic fortnight.
Against Napoli, Zidane leaned on his more experienced players and was rewarded with decent performances from Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez. The Frenchman had been under the microscope after a run of six games without a goal, while the Colombian seems to have taken up residence there during a season in which every question he fields regards his future at the club. Rodriguez in particular could be a useful player for Zidane in this glut of fixtures, slotting in on the right of the front three.
Gareth Bale is almost ready to be included in a match day squad -- he may even make the list to face Espanyol -- but he will be eased back in by his coach, who is acutely aware of the positive impact the Welshman will have at the business end of the campaign after three months on the sidelines. Zidane will certainly want Bale raring to go against Napoli.
Carvajal will also need to be treated with care. The full-back plays an exorbitant amount of minutes for Real Madrid largely because he has no adequate replacement. Danilo is unlikely to last much longer than the club's transfer ban and the error-prone Brazilian wasn't even in the squad for Wednesday's game. Nacho, Madrid's jack of all trades, can fill in on the right and should do for at least one of the side's next two home fixtures. Of his 20 appearances this season, only one has been at right-back and had anything befallen Carvajal on Wednesday, Zidane would have had the option of Nacho or Lucas Vazquez filling in or a mid-game switch to something other than four at the back.
Experiments of that kind have not yielded exceptional results and after the Osasuna victory Zidane himself admitted that the side is more coherent with four defenders.
Elsewhere, it seems remarkable how little Marco Asensio has featured recently: 45 minutes in the league since the turn of the year and omitted from the squad for Napoli, the midfielder has dropped down the pecking order faster than a bird in lead boots. When he has played, he generally acquitted himself well and now would be a good time for Zidane to hand the 21-year-old a bit more playing time to take the pressure off his first-choice midfield. The same applies to Mateo Kovacic, who has been excellent thus far in 2017.
The away game at Villarreal is the trickiest domestic fixture Real face before travelling to Naples but prior to that, Espanyol visit the Bernabeu (where they have not won since 1996) and Madrid travel to a Valencia side in serious trouble at the foot of the table. Those seem like games suited to Alvaro Morata, who has remained on the bench despite the clamour for Benzema to be handed a couple of days of rest, managing just 32 minutes in the league in 2017 and nine against Napoli.
Morata proved he has a big game temperament when playing a key role in Juventus' semifinal victory over Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League. Given Real's luck with injuries this season it would a good idea not to have him coming straight out of cold storage if he is needed in Italy.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.