Will Zidane learn lessons of defeat at Girona as Machin's men visit Madrid?
"Today was a bad day," Zinedine Zidane said after his side had been beaten 2-1 by Girona in Montilivi last October. The Real Madrid manager could not have foreseen at the time how many more bad days this Liga season would send his way, but he will be considerably more aware of Girona's capabilities when the Catalonia side visit the Bernabeu on Sunday.
That victory was no accident. In their first-ever season in the top flight, Girona have been led to the gates of Europe by a young manager also savouring his debut in the big time. Madrid had not been beaten by a Primera newcomer since Burgos pulled off the feat in 1990.
It is a shame Spanish stadiums are not given to creating terrace chants, because Pablo Machin certainly lends itself to one. The 42-year-old, who took over at Girona in March 2014, has created a team to match his name.
Machin's previous experience was limited to Numancia, as assistant, youth and B-team coach, and later first-team manager for two seasons. So when City Football Group and Pep Guardiola's brother, Pere (as head of the Girona Football Group), assumed control before the 2017-18 campaign, sweeping changes might have been expected. Not a bit of it. Machin has his formula and it works. Girona's benefactors had the good sense not to try to fix something that wasn't broken.
An influx of Manchester City youth-team players was inevitable, but Machin has been under no pressure to use any of them. Of the five that arrived on loan, only Pablo Maffeo has worked his way into a regular first-team place. Neither have wads of cash been pumped into the squad: Girona spent just over €5 million last summer.
Instead, Machin has coaxed Cristhian Stuani into his most prolific top-flight season in Europe while repeating the trick with attacking midfielder Portu, who had never reached double figures in three seasons in Segunda.
It was that pair, who have 26 league goals between them already in 2017-18, that shot down Madrid in Montilivi, after which Zidane identified the destructive blueprint Machin has designed: "We lacked a bit of concentration, and they played well, direct, quickly, winning second balls." It was a compliment to Machin's tactical nous that Zidane mirrored his opponent's formation in the second half.
Machin plays with three central defenders, and the Girona boss has settled on Jonas Ramalho, Bernardo Espinosa and Juanpe when available. Five clean sheets in their past seven appearances together have rewarded their boss' faith. From there, Girona's plan is straightforward: get the ball to the wing-backs and into the box for Stuani, who has scored seven headers this season, with Portu lurking behind the Uruguay international for poaching opportunities.
Zidane will be hoping Sergio Ramos is fit Sunday to counter that aerial threat. The manager put out what many consider his strongest side in Ipurua last weekend, Gareth Bale being an obvious dissenter. The Wales forward has been included in Ryan Giggs' squad for the China Cup during the international break, but Madrid are apparently keen on persuading the former Manchester United winger to excuse his injury-prone successor with the derby and Juventus on the horizon.
Whether Zidane will ring the changes in the Bernabeu on Sunday or seek some continuity with those games approaching remains to be seen. The proximity of the international calendar is a concern he can do little about, but against a side of Girona's physicality -- Machin's squad rank fourth in La Liga for fouls committed -- he might choose to shuffle his deck. The width, pace and defensive cover provided by Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, both on the bench last weekend, are something Zidane would be wise to consider after a lineup with Achraf Hakimi and Marcelo at full-back were run ragged in Montilivi.
Bale and Dani Carvajal might well start in the Bernabeu, if only to pull the old yellow-card trick: both are one caution away from a suspension, and Zidane would doubtless prefer them to serve it when Madrid travel to Las Palmas rather than risk being in the stands for the derby against Atletico a week later, although Carvajal would be well advised to be a bit more subtle about it this time.
It is at this stage of the season that the little details start to matter. Keeping his players in trim and off the treatment table with an eye on the Champions League are the day-to-day minutiae Zidane has to manage.
Machin has no such concerns and with his side in seventh -- sufficient for Europa League football next season -- and three points clear of Real Betis, this is another free hit against the European champions. Seeing if Zidane and Madrid have learned how to duck should make for an entertaining game.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.