Carlo Ancelotti took his Real Madrid men to Malaga on Saturday on the back of a 29-game unbeaten run and amid the expectation that his side would overwhelm Bernd Schuster’s inconsistent collection of journeymen.
A glance at the respective attacks would have confirmed the apparent mismatch. Ancelotti fielded a forward line comprising Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo while the home side featured Roque Santa Cruz as a lone striker.
As it transpired, Ronaldo’s strike midway through the first half proved sufficient to settle the game, the Portuguese receiving Gareth Bale’s exquisite cross-field pass and beating three defenders before slotting coolly past Willy Caballero.
Ancelotti’s men created further chances but failed to take them, while the industrious home side matched their more illustrious visitors for possession over the 90 minutes but were toothless in attack.
Suggestions that his men ought to have overturned Malaga were quickly refuted by Ancelotti, who insisted that “you cannot always win 2-0 or 3-0” and that his side were “robust.” That robustness was demonstrated last night as Los Blancos entertained a Schalke side they had already annihilated 6-1 in Germany in the first leg of their Champions League Last 16 encounter.
Unlike against Malaga, where only Sergio Ramos’ suspension forced the Coach into ringing a change, Ancelotti made wholesale alterations for Schalke’s visit, handing rare starts to Fabio Coentrao, Nacho, Asier Illarramendi, Jese Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata.
Jese has been one of the success stories of the season at Santiago Bernabeu, making numerous cameo appearances from the bench and chipping in with vital goals. Despite suffering a suspected cruciate ligament injury last night, causing a premature end to his season, Jese’s performances thus far emphasise the calibre of the squad Ancelotti has at his disposal.
Along with Morata, Coentrao and Illarramendi, the 21-year-old would walk into most other sides in La Liga instead of remaining on the fringes.
Neither Barcelona nor Atletico Madrid are as well-served in every position as Los Blancos. Tata Martino’s defensive options are limited, especially in the centre where Javier Mascherano has always appeared as a stop-gap and Carles Puyol has struggled with fitness in his swansong season.
In contrast, Raphael Varane slotted effortlessly alongside Pepe to replace Ramos against Malaga and to play alongside him against Schalke.
In attack, Real Madrid are matched closely by Atletico, where Diego Simeone relies heavily on his main strikers to get the goals. Between them, Diego Costa and David Villa have accounted for 33 of Atleti’s 64 in La Liga while Real Madrid’s front three have bagged 50 out of 77.
At Barcelona, Martino is blessed with the return to form of Lionel Messi, but Real Madrid always give the impression of having more scoring options even if the much-improved Benzema, who limped off against Malaga and was missing against Schalke, is a doubt for the Clasico.
Despite scoring seven on Sunday, Barcelona’s recent form has been erratic, whereas Madrid have been paragons of consistency. Barca must win in Madrid on Sunday to maintain any hope of retaining their title, while a win for Los Blancos could make that all but impossible.