After the painful last-second 3-2 defeat against Barcelona last weekend, Real Madrid reacted well in their quest for the La Liga title. The subsequent 6-2 thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna brought back the smiles and the good vibrations to the squad, who now need to keep performing for another five domestic matches if they want to achieve their goal.
The next match, at home against Valencia, is one of the toughest two remaining in the calendar, at least on paper. With the competitive Sevilla visiting the Santiago Bernabeu in a fortnight, a victory over Valencia on Saturday afternoon would represent a formidable step in the right direction.
Regardless of their inconsistent form, Valencia have become a bogey team for Real Madrid in recent seasons. The team now coached by Voro have been able to get a few positive results against the Madridistas both at the Mestalla and the Bernabeu, having a decent amount of blame or merit in the unsuccessful challenges to the La Liga title that Real Madrid have put in during the previous two years.
However, Valencia have struggled to perform day in and day out since billionaire Peter Lim bought the club in 2014. Their signings of high-profile coaches — such as Gary Neville and Cesare Prandelli — and the constant arrival of new players — over 10 signings per season — have not worked out.
Before Voro took over at the end of December 2016, the team seemed bound to fight against relegation despite their talented roaster. However, the sensible decision of giving the reins to the former Valencia player has produced results quickly, and the team have been able to get closer to the middle of the table, displaying glimpses of the promise many see in this squad.
Voro has combined some of the recent signings with homegrown players that the club have always been good at nurturing. Simone Zaza and Fabian Orellana belong to the former group, while 20-year-old Carlos Soler and the recovered Jose Luis Gaya are excellent examples of the latter. With penalty stopper Diego Alves in goal — some say he’s more reliable trying to stop a shot from the penalty spot than trying to block a soft corner kick — the team has morphed into one of those unpredictable sides that can make any team look poor on a given night, but that still lack consistency to reach for higher goals. For instance, after a positive streak they have now gone three matches without a win, having lost their last two.
On Real Madrid’s end, the big question is how much of an “A side” Zidane will field for the match. With Atletico Madrid awaiting in the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday, it’s hard to guess how far the French manager will take his rotation policy, as Real Madrid can’t afford a negative result in either of the matches.
For instance, Raphael Varane, who looked fine in his comeback after injury on Wednesday, has not made the final list. That said, Zidane’s selection for the Valencia match shows respect for the visitors: Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Keylor Navas are back, although it’s unclear whether or not they will start.
The recent outstanding performances of what has already become known as the “B team” — the second unit that includes young players such as Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez, Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Marco Asensio, led by an inspired Isco — have generated a buzz around the club that brings some of us back to the time of la Quinta del Buitre, the golden generation of the late 80s.
It’s rare to see such a young unit play for Real Madrid and do it this well together, helping each other while they enjoy so blatantly their time on the pitch. It’s up to Zidane how to mix and match these talented kids with the usual starters, but the fact is that, right now, the fans’ intention to watch the team fight for the title has been boosted by the inspiration of this fresh group.
Supporters feel quite sure that, if they don’t attend a match, they will miss something special, and that alone is a fantastic reason to go to the stadium and cheer for the team. Especially against their most recent bogey team.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC’s Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.