Real Madrid’s Liga, Copa triple-header with Sevilla could define their season
“Season-defining” is always a little hyperbolic to describe any single game, especially in January. However, Real Madrid’s upcoming Copa del Rey and La Liga triple-header against Sevilla can certainly be defined as “season-shaping.” In the space of 12 days, Zinedine Zidane’s side go up against Jorge Sampaoli’s in-form Rojiblancos for the first time since August’s European Super Cup, a game that Real won by the skin of their teeth through Sergio Ramos’ equaliser deep in stoppage time and Dani Carvajal’s eventual 119th-minute winner.
Sevilla have made a habit of defying the odds to reinvent themselves as an even stronger side year after year, despite being cherry-picked every summer for their finest players. A good deal of the credit for that should go to Monchi, the club’s long-serving sporting director, who has a Midas touch when it comes to bringing in reinforcements and knowing when a player doesn’t quite fit the bill.
Sevilla’s scorers in Trondheim were Franco Vazquez and Yevhen Konoplyanka. The former remains, and the latter was shifted to Schalke on loan before the summer window shut. Atletico Madrid snapped up 2015-16 club top scorer Kevin Gameiro, and in-demand Grzegorz Krychowiak followed Unai Enery to Paris Saint-Germain.
No matter. Monchi waved his wand and, in addition to Vazquez, brought in Joaquin Correa and Wissam Ben Yedder while also pinching Luciano Vietto and Matias Kranevitter on loan from Atletico as part of the Gameiro business. All have settled quickly, and Sevilla sit in third in La Liga, a point behind Barcelona and four adrift of leaders Real.
Wild-card signings Samir Nasri and Ganso have been chalk and cheese, but that is all part of the Monchi menu. As a whole, it goes down extremely well season to season as Sevilla continue on the up and up.
Under Sampaoli, Sevilla have been beaten just four times so far in 2016-17, and they top the Liga home form table with 21 points to Real’s 20. At the Sanchez Pizjuan, only Barcelona and Juventus have emerged victorious. The Argentinean coach is famous for his tactical flexibility, and Sevilla have lined up in just about every formation known to man under his guidance, with each and every one tailored to the opposition.
“They are a very good team, very competitive, very confident,” Zidane said in his prematch news conference. “It will be a difficult game for us, and I hope for them too.”
The Real coach will have to do without some of his most trusted players for the opening leg at the Bernabeu. Ramos and Pepe have both been ruled out with muscle problems, while Lucas Vazquez, who has played his way into long-term injury absentee Gareth Bale’s position, and Mateo Kovacic are both out for a couple weeks at least, with twangs picked up in training.
That will leave Raphael Varane, who has played more minutes this season than any of his teammates, to partner Nacho in the centre of defence with Carvajal and Marcelo in the full-back positions. In midfield, Zidane has plenty to choose from, but he must select in the knowledge that in Steven N’Zonzi — whose resurrection in Seville has been nothing short of miraculous after his stints at Blackburn and Stoke — and Vicente Iborra, Sampaoli has an engine room like no other in La Liga. Not only do they break up play, but both score goals as well, N’Zonzi popping up with the winner against Atletico with a typically unstoppable run and the Spaniard bagging three so far.
Given his lack of options in other areas of the pitch, Zidane will probably go all-out in midfield with Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos charged with trying to gain the ascendancy.
“We want to see more of the ball than Real Madrid,” Sampaoli said ahead of the game. That is no empty threat: Only Barcelona have enjoyed more possession than Sevilla on average in La Liga this season.
If Sevilla can achieve that objective, then life might be hard for Real. Without Vazquez, Zidane’s side will lose not only the direct running of the canterano to unsettle the visiting defence but also his high-energy pressing game. Karim Benzema will be charged with leading the line, but even the Frenchman’s innate ability to bring his teammates into play will be tested in the absence of his habitual cohorts Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been rested for the Bernabeu leg.
Over the course of 180 minutes in the Copa, the Argentinean will be quietly confident of getting the better of his opposite number. With Sevilla still very much in the Liga running as well, Zidane needs to lay down a marker before consecutive trips to the Sanchez Pizjuan. It promises to be a fascinating contest.