Real Madrid are looking forward to cup action on Wednesday evening, as they travel to third-tier side Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey hoping to continue their recent winning streak.
Manager Zinedine Zidane is certain to make changes to his starting lineup and rotate his players for what is clearly a secondary competition for Los Blancos this season. However, there will still be plenty of full internationals and established names on show, despite the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale not being included.
Here’s our 16-man squad for tomorrow’s Copa del Rey clash 🆚 Cultural Leonesa!#HalaMadrid pic.twitter.com/oC8slRGWIg
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) October 25, 2016
For several players this is a rare fixture to start in and make an impact, and while some will be hoping to grasp that chance, others fully deserve a shot at making Zidane’s side on a more regular basis. This Copa fixture will be their opportunity to show they can improve the team going forward.
Briefly put, Real Madrid’s defence has been a shambles this year. The goal conceded to Athletic Club Bilbao at the weekend was just the latest in a host of errors and poor performances that have blighted Los Blancos’ back line and restricted them to just two clean sheets all season.
Individual mistakes have cost dearly, both in terms of conceding goals and losing points, and each of the three senior centre-backs have been at fault in turn. Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Raphael Varane are each regarded as among Europe’s finest at the back, but none of the trio really deserves such a title on this season’s evidence.
Nacho provided attacking thrust from left-back in his two starts this term
One who doesn’t figure in that list is Nacho Fernandez, with the Spanish centre-back playing the role of fourth choice as usual. Yet when he played early on in the campaign—both centrally and on the left—he rarely put a foot wrong, was aggressive and showed another token of loyalty when he stayed at the club over summer instead of moving on when the opportunity to do so was there.
While Nacho was always likely to play in the Copa, a solid showing against Cultural should at least propel him into Zidane’s considerations to feature in a bigger game before Ramos’ return from injury.
At worst, Nacho can be rotated back out without issue if he doesn’t perform. At best, though, perhaps it’ll be the kick up the backside one of the other three need to take their form more seriously.
Marcelo is the undisputed king of left-back and rightly so, but Nacho and Danilo have had to fill in as his back-up when required this season due to the ongoing unavailability of Portuguese wing-back Fabio Coentrao.
The former Benfica man has only made one previous Real Madrid squad this season thanks to continual setbacks in his recovery from injury, sustained last term on loan at AS Monaco—but if he’s fit enough this time out, a start is a must.
Fabio Coentrao is due to return to playing action after almost seven months on the sidelines as Real Madrid face Cultural Leonesa. [MARCA] pic.twitter.com/OGGXZzCgPC
— Galactico Edition (@LosGaIacticos) October 25, 2016
Nobody should expect or demand a glorious performance after not featuring for more than one half of football since February 2016—a first step back on the pitch is a big hurdle to overcome.
However, Madrid will need squad depth as the season goes on and Coentrao, if not a tremendous defender, at least offers the chance to replicate Marcelo’s forward surges.
He might not get too many chances in the second half of the season when titles are at stake, so getting through this match without a further setback will be Coentrao’s big goal.
Winger Lucas Vazquez shot to prominence last season as he impacted under Rafa Benitez and then Zidane, before making the Spain squad for Euro 2016.
This season, however, he has been an impact sub and little more, playing in all but two of Madrid’s competitive fixtures yet only starting twice.
Zidane may well trust the 25-year-old to switch things up if Madrid are trailing, or to perhaps work harder defensively if they are leading a tight match, but Lucas won’t amass considerable game time over a season by featuring for just a handful of minutes at a time. Seven of his eight La Liga appearances this term have been for 25 minutes or less.
Lucas Vazquez has two assists in 240 minutes of La Liga action this season
A fleet-footed winger who is selfless in the final third and diligent about tracking back, he’s the perfect type of player teams want in a cup match against lower-league opposition: better than them going forward, but not so cavalier and lax that he won’t also match them for effort.
Even so, he needs a big impact if he’s to step up from simply being a footnote in matches for the remainder of the year.
An obvious name now, but an important one. Mariano is 23 years old, was promoted to the senior squad by Zidane, who coached him at Castilla…and has barely had a look-in so far after impressing in pre-season.
A spell of just 13 minutes on the pitch as sub against Celta Vigo in Jornada 2 has seen Mariano sit behind starting striker Karim Benzema and his rival, Alvaro Morata The Dominican international is also only considered after alternatives such as playing two up front and moving Cristiano Ronaldo infield, have been used.
Zinedine Zidane: "In December we’ll see what happens with Mariano. At the moment, he is with us and he’ll be in the squad list." #HalaMadrid
— RMadridHome (@RMadridHome_) October 25, 2016
Mariano said he would fight for his spot until December, per Marca, but if he doesn’t feature more often then it’s inevitable he’ll move for a loan deal in the winter transfer window.
Performing well in the Copa is perhaps the only route available to him now, and even if Cultural do not provide the sort of opposition which would yield proof that he can handle the shirt, a (reasonably) young striker has to take on whatever challenge is thrown his way and beat it.
The star of Marco Asensio rose quickly after he signed for Real Madrid from Mallorca, impressing first on loan at Espanyol last season and then for Los Blancos over the summer—and he’s now a full Spain international.
OFFICIAL: Marco Asensio has been named the breakthrough star of the 2015/16 LaLiga season. pic.twitter.com/W12ZlpQ6ke
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) October 24, 2016
With four goals this season, he’s one of Madrid’s joint-top scorers. There’s no doubting his ability, but he also seems the sort of young player who can just play and play, and his quality will explode on the pitch time after time.
Of late, though, that game time has dwindled.
Asensio has started just two of the last eight matches—both against significantly smaller opposition—and he didn’t make it off the bench against Athletic Club at the weekend.
The Spanish starlet is clearly just as capable as Isco in terms of having an impact, and even more so in the penalty box perhaps. But being as young as he is, Asensio will doubtless have to be patient at times; it’s easier to leave the young players out, even if they deserve to play.
All he can do is continue to shine when given the chance, and sooner or later his form and the calls for his inclusion will be too irresistible to ignore.