Holders Real Madrid face cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal on Tuesday, a tie which may well turn out to be a season-defining one.
While Los Blancos are still in contention for the La Liga title, the margins are very fine and a couple of bad games will see them finish their season empty-handed. And the perennial underdogs, the Rojiblancos, may have fallen behind in the league but remain a dangerous side and will fancy their chances of upsetting their illustrious neighbours’ hopes of a Champions League and La Liga double.
Zinedine Zidane or Zizou as he is affectionately called faces a massive selection dilemma for Tuesday’s clash at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Youngsters Marco Asensio and Lucas Vasquez have been impressive in recent weeks, arguably more so than Madrid’s regular stars. They are in contention for a start but so are fringe players such as Isco and James Rodriguez.
So who will start alongside talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and misfiring forward Karim Benzema?
Asensio’s case is the strongest from all the contenders, but it remains to be seen if Zidane thinks him worthy of starting on Tuesday.
Their injury-hit defence continues to make light of their situation with Naco and Sergio Ramos doing a fine job but it is Marcelo, who has truly shone in the past few weeks. The Brazilian winger was the standout performer against Bayern in the quarters and scored the winner in Madrid’s last-gasp win over Valencia on the weekend. Raphael Varane's return from injury is a major boost, but Zidane is unlikely to start the injury-prone Frenchman on Tuesday and the Nacho-Ramos tandem is set to continue.
What they are saying: “I won a Champions League with Real Madrid in a year in which we trained horribly. There was very little commitment, but it was like there was psychological doping when we played in the Champions League,” former Real Madrid goalkeeper Santiago Canizares (as per radio station Cadena SER via AFP)
Injury concerns: Pepe (Rib), Gareth Bale (Calf)
Suspension Alert: None
So close, yet so far. The most accurate description of Atletico’s Champions League journey in the past couple of seasons. Two final defeats at the hands of Madrid have been heartbreaking and their inability to win club football’s biggest prize will undoubtedly rankle Diego Simeone.
The Atletico manager knows Madrid aren't in top form but somehow have managed to overcome Bayern Munich among others, to reach the semifinal. He will set out his team to frustrate Zidane’s men, hitting them on the counter via one Antoine Griezmann.
The French winger, who is supposedly on the verge of a summer move to Manchester United, has been in searing form of late and, perhaps, is the only consistent goal outlet the Rojiblancos have.
Giving him support from midfield will be two of Spain’s brightest talents, Saul Niguez and Koke, a midfield duo who cannot be found wanting if Atletico are to take anything back for the second leg.
They have injury concerns of their own. With both Juanfran and Jose Maria Gimenez ruled out, Simeone will have to put in a makeshift right-back on the night.
What they are saying: “I don't get tired of praising these players. Four days ago we lost match and today (Saturday) we responded and solved the match in 18 minutes. That speaks volumes about the team and reflects well for the club," Atletico coach Diego Simeone
Injury concerns: Augusto Fernandez (Knee), Sime Vraljko (Knee), Juanfrant (Hamstring), Yannick Carrasco (Shoulder), Jose Maria Gimenez (Thigh)
Suspension Alert: None