Real Madrid travel to bottom-dwellers Osasuna with rested, recovered squad
On Thursday afternoon, Osasuna defender Carlos Clerc said that his team want Real Madrid to remember how tough it is to play at their home, Estadio El Sadar. Such statements deserve some context.
Zinedine Zidane's side are due to visit Pamplona on Saturday evening, and while Clerc's words may sound delusional -- Osasuna currently sit at the bottom of the table with only 10 points after 21 matches -- the young centre-back has a point. Due to its peculiar structure and narrow pitch, El Sadar has traditionally been a tough outing for most teams and especially for Real Madrid, who always receive the noisiest of welcomes from the Osasuna faithful.
The stadium's 18,700-spectator capacity may sound limited, but they know how to make themselves heard. Supporters sit so close to the pitch that every corner kick becomes an ordeal for the kicker, so Toni Kroos will be relieved that he can't play on Saturday due to suspension. The whole scene at El Sadar has a certain 1980s flavour to it, and the atmosphere is rewarding for those who enjoy a bit of a throwback feeling on occasion.
Clerc and his teammates will indeed have to improve if they want to recover the intimidating ambience of times past. Osasuna have won just once this season, and it came at Eibar. A first home win against the La Liga leaders sounds far-fetched, but we've seen bigger upsets in football.
Osasuna's position at the wrong end of the standings is hardly surprising. Their defence, the worst in La Liga with 46 goals conceded so far, has also presented opposing attacks with the highest number of headed goals. With the exceptions of Sergio Leon and Oriol Riera, it's hard to find offensive talent. And only in the last few matches, now that the squad's situation is desperate, have we started to see hints of the fighting spirit that characterised Osasuna for most of their history.
As if the struggles of Pamplona's favourite team were not enough, Real Madrid can count on a few recovered players to start Saturday. Due to the suspension of their previous match at Celta Vigo, Madrid have not played a single match in the last 14 days, so Zidane has taken advantage of this time to work on the physical side of things and get some ailing players the right attention for their recovery.
For instance, James Rodriguez looks fully fit and should start Saturday, playing for the first time in 2017. Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo are also back in shape, as is Pepe. The only player still working to regain fitness is Gareth Bale, who will need at least another two weeks to come back.
After the injury crisis his side suffered in December and January, Zidane now faces the issue of deciding who should start. As things stand, at least 15 footballers have a decent set of arguments to claim a spot in the XI. The manager will have to evolve from making do with the limited options at his disposal to being forced to leave plenty of talent on the bench.
Madrid's most likely lineup features Keylor Navas, Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic, James, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Zidane's biggest doubt is probably Alvaro Morata, who has shown plenty of effort in his last two outings and whose characteristics seem more suited to El Sadar than those of Benzema, for instance. Lucas Vazquez also has a slight chance of starting, although it's more likely that James' good work in the last two weeks gets him a nod from Zidane as a reward.
A match against the worst team in La Liga may sound like an easy trip, but a victory is key for Real Madrid to keep the lead over Barcelona and Sevilla. Napoli await Wednesday in the Champions League round of 16, so Zidane and his team need to come back from Pamplona with all three points in order to prepare for a tough midweek match while still leading the La Liga standings.
Even if Clerc is right and El Sadar resembles its old atmosphere again, Real Madrid have their arsenal fully loaded. The difference between the La Liga leaders and the bottom of the table should be evident Saturday night.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.