Carlo Ancelotti has room to rotate as Real Madrid zone in on Champions League final

Is it all over? Well, almost. Real Madrid have won LaLiga, Barcelona look almost unassailable in that second position that makes Gerard Pique and Spanish FA President Luis Rubiales both happier and richer, and Sevilla and Atletico can already celebrate their top four finish, which means Champions League football next season. 

Six and eight points behind, respectively, Betis and Real Sociedad won’t make that top four, but should be happy with their performance, especially the former and their Copa del Rey title. And Villarreal, with a handful of memorable Champions League displays, still has the chance to catch Real Sociedad and aspire to the sixth spot, but with luck like they had this weekend, it feels difficult.

Yes, that reads like a season ending opening paragraphs, but saving some spectacular collapse in the last three matches, that’s pretty much how these next few weeks feel for those teams. Perhaps test a few players, work on the summer reinforcements, and get ready for the next season, but not much more than that. It does feel like a bit underwhelming, but not every tournament can keep plenty of storylines until the very last matchday.

Of course, there’s still Real Madrid’s Champions League final, almost three weeks away. Carlo Ancelotti has already announced that he’ll be mixing starters and bench players in those next three LaLiga matches to avoid risks while keeping his trusted core in the best possible shape. That could benefit some of their rivals, such as Levante or Cadiz, who won’t have to face the Madridistas in full capacity playing for the title. 

It does sound paradoxical that Ancelotti, the man who couldn’t rotate, can now play around with his squad for four full matches without any concern for the consequences. On Sunday at the Wanda, the Italian manager started Andriy Lunin on goal and Luka Jovic upfront, among other usual subs who enjoyed their moment of glory. After the match, a loss during which one could see some Real Madrid starters joking around on the bench as a telling sign of the importance they assigned to the match, Ancelotti said that Benzema, who didn’t feature at the Wanda, will play on Wednesday vs Levante, which probably tells you how the non-rotating Italian is planning to take advantage of this relaxing period before the final battle.

The starters for the final, injuries aside, seem clear: Courtois; Carvajal, Militão, Alaba, Mendy; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Valverde, Benzema, Vinicius. One good thing about Carletto is that you don’t have to second guess his line-ups in these times of overthinking managers. At this point it is obvious that Asensio has lost his starter’s spot and very likely his place in the squad altogether, and that Rodrygo works best coming off the bench. If anyone had any doubts, Ancelotti himself said, after the match, that “Valverde is irreplaceable in this Real Madrid”, so there. Now it’s a question of keeping those 11 players plus the handful of options off the bench – Camavinga, Rodrygo, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez – healthy until the 28th of May.

But if all looks done and dusted in the top half of the table, the fun at the bottom will keep us on our toes until the end of the season. Levante have resurrected from the dead, although perhaps a bit too late, and now sit five points away from salvation with nine to play. It does seem like a stretch for a side who have won six matches of 35, but three of those wins happened in their last six. Even if they’re doing better, it still looks bad for Levante, while Alavés look cooked. So the biggest doubt now is the third relegated side, a position that Mallorca, Granada and Cadiz are trying to avoid. The first two presented us with the most shocking match of the weekend, a 6-2 away win for the Granadinos, now coached by a certain Aitor Karanka of Middlesbrough and Real Madrid fame. 

Granada’s victory had Molina at the forefront: the 40-year-old striker scored twice and assisted twice too, which is a first for someone his age in LaLiga. It was indeed a weekend for the ageing, as in that same match Salva Sevilla (38) scored a beauty; Dani Alves (first 39-year-old to ever play an official match for Barcelona) crossed for Jordi Alba (33) to hit a screamer for Barcelona’s last minute win vs Betis; Alvaro Negredo (36) also got a key goal for Cadiz vs Elche; and finally Iago Aspas (34) kept his strong end of the season going with two goals and one assist vs the depressed Alaves. It does seem as though footballers’ careers are becoming longer and longer, even in positions in which the energy of the youth seemed mandatory. One does wonder when players like Sergio Busquets (33), Luka Modric (36) or even Raúl Garcia (35) will consider stepping down, but those cases abound now much more than in previous decades, as physical and mental conditioning have improved so much that a good management of playing time can keep players going a lot longer.

Back to Granada, they dealt a very heavy blow to Mallorca, who were doing just fine two months ago, and now look at the drop as a very tangible possibility. Their schedule does not seem too bad until the end of the season, as they face three teams playing for nothing: Sevilla and Osasuna away, and Rayo at home. Granada can’t complain either: Athletic, Betis and Espanyol are also done with their respective seasons. The most threatening calendar is Cadiz’s, with Real Sociedad (still need a few points to guarantee their sixth spot), Real Madrid (who can defeat them even with the B side) and Alavés, who may be relegated in the final day of the season, but won’t be keen on saying goodbye to the category with a (nother) loss in front of their supporters.

Cadiz has one point more than Granada and two more than Mallorca, so this is going to get really, really interesting. If you haven’t followed the lower regions of the standings, it’s a great time to start, high emotions guaranteed. And if you haven’t followed our (Phil Ball and myself) weekly quiniela up to now, you should. Phil now leads with 62 correct results in 130 matches, and I’m just one correct prediction behind with 61. Time for the big matches coming up.

Tags Carlo Ancelotti Champions League La Liga Real Madrid
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