Real Madrid did enough to get past Valladolid on Saturday and reduce the deficit on Atlético Madrid at the top of the Liga table to three points but despite overcoming more injury-based adversity in the José Zorrilla the fact that Casemiro provided the winning goal from a set-piece will have had Zinedine Zidane thinking ahead to the Champions League before the whistle had sounded.
The absence of Karim Benzema, Madrid’s attacking focal point, is the latest in a long run of knocks and niggles that Zidane has been forced to contend with this season and, in the short term at least, it could prove to be the most damaging.
Madrid face Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta in the opening leg of the Champions League last-16 at the Stadio di Bergamo on 24 February, a game that has no precedent in European competition. Atalanta have only played a Spanish side once before in a competitive continental fixture, hammering Valencia 8-4 on aggregate last season. Gasperini’s entertainers operate a suffocating high press and score goals by the hatful only Inter Milan have more in Serie A in 2020-21.
Zidane’s side, meanwhile, have been struggling in that department this season by their own standards, the Valladolid result being the 11th time Madrid have scored one of fewer in LaLiga in 2020-21. After that game, Zidane said: “We are not going to risk [Benzema]. If he’s not ready, he won’t be used.”
Benzema fitness could be key to Champions League opener
A final decision on Benzema’s fitness will be made on Monday but the three-pronged attack of Mariano, Vinicius and Marco Asensio scarcely troubled Valladolid and Zidane has little left in reserve at the moment with Eden Hazard and Rodrygo also out, Luka Jovic gone and some of the more attack-minded defenders such as Sergio Ramos and Marcelo also on the sidelines.
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Against Valladolid, Zidane handed a debut to Hugo Duro but is unlikely to throw the Castilla prospect into the fray in Bergamo while another forward, Lucas Vázquez, has been filling in at the back for the absent Dani Carvajal.
Despite the result in the José Zorrilla, Zidane will have been left concerned by Madrid’s lack of cutting edge in front of goal: the visitors managed just two shots on target over the course of 90 minutes, Casemiro’s header and a Vázquez effort. None of Madrid’s attacking players remotely troubled Jordi Masip.
As has been the case in recent games, it looks increasingly probable that Zidane will take just 13 senior players to Italy with the bench being occupied mostly by Castilla players.