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Football Whispers

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Football Whispers
 By Matt McGinn

Tough stretch of fixtures could be just what Madrid need to jump-start season

Footballers say that they prefer playing matches to training. Without exception. The preparation, the injection of adrenaline as they cross the white line, the debrief, the hairdryer or the praise. Repeat. The Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday rhythm leaves little time for wallowing or contemplation. As soon as one match finishes, the focus shifts to the next one.

Real Madrid face a relentless run of matches from now until Christmas. The instinctive reaction is to wince and recoil at the prospect. But it could be precisely what Zinedine Zidane's side need for two reasons: enforced rotation, and a volume of matches that could knock Madrid in to their groove. 

The squad filter back to Valdebebas this week following the final weekend of competitive international football before the 2018 World Cup. On Saturday, they face Atletico Madrid in the inaugural Derbi Madrileno at the Wanda Metropolitano, their rival's prim new home on the outskirts of the city.

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That match is the first of 10 that Real Madrid will face in 36 days, with that run culminating in a festive Clasico at the Bernabeu on Dec. 23.

A trip to APOEL in the Champions League follows the match against Diego Simeone's side. Then, like moving to a higher level on a primitive video game, the pace increases. The obstacles arrive thick and fast. 

Malaga come next. They prop up La Liga under the tutelage of Michel, a died-in-the-wool Madridista and a member of the Quinta del Buitre team that won five consecutive championships in the 1980s. Fuenlabrada make the short trip to the north of Madrid soon after. They have a two-division gap and a two-goal deficit to bridge in the Copa del Rey. 

The prospect of an away match at San Mames will draw grimaces from the greying gentlemen who pore over the sports dailies in local bars. Athletic are Real Madrid's next opponent. Football oozes from the post-industrial pores of Bilbao. Traditionally, it is a difficult place to pick up points. Yet Athletic have beaten Madrid just once in four attempts since the stadium was rebuilt in 2013.

Dani Ceballos has seized his limited chances and should get more soon with a busy stretch of fixtures leading up to Christmas.

Home matches against Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund then stand between Madrid and the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. The prestige of intercontinental club football is not high in Europe. That may flow from parochial arrogance. Or it could be the logical result of the dominance of European clubs in the last few decades. Either way, Zidane will view the competition as an unnecessary distraction. The Champions League is the coveted prize for the European footballing elite. The Club World Cup is the unwanted by-product.  

Barcelona await Real Madrid's return from the Middle East. El Clasico will mark the crescendo of the 10-game run.   

Rotation will be necessary, particularly in the Club World Cup. When players face several matches in a short space of time, their physical performance levels decrease while, conversely, the risk of injury increases.  

Dani Ceballos will be one who will benefit. The 21-year-old midfielder has played just 284 minutes for Madrid since joining from Real Betis in the summer, a little longer than a self-indulgent Quentin Tarantino film. In one of his two league starts -- away at Alaves in September -- Ceballos scored a brace. And on Tuesday evening he scored a glorious hat trick for Spain's Under-21s. As the established midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro show faint signs of staleness, Ceballos mounts a compelling case to rejuvenate the midfield.

Real Madrid have suffered from the fact that players who joined the squad in the summer -- like Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral, Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, and Ceballos -- have been unable to seamlessly replace established names. That is natural as they are new to the first-team environment. But as they settle in, this glut of games will present the opportunity to step up their integration. That, in turn, will create favourable conditions for Zidane to deploy his rotation policy in the second half of the season.

This campaign, Real Madrid have not replicated the unabated rhythm that defined the latter months of the 2016-17 season. Consecutive defeats to Girona and Tottenham Hotspur made that acutely clear. "Crisis" adorned the newspapers in bold print. 

When the Madrid squad reunite after the international break, their frustrations will not have the opportunity to simmer further. There won't be time. The run of matches at the end of 2017 could provide the jump-start the team needs.   

Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93


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