Santi and Real must up ante or face top four fight
Huge game versus Betis
Real Madrid’s troubled season faces a fresh challenge on Sunday night with a challenging trip to face sixth-placed Real Betis, who will be determined to boost their challenge for the top four with a victory.
Visiting boss Santiago Solari is facing a long list of absentees, and confidence is fragile following last weekend’s shock 2-0 home loss against lowly Real Sociedad.
Madrid did at least earn the boost of a 3-0 midweek cup win over Leganes, and they will be hoping to use that victory as a catalyst to reignite their season – but dangerous Betis will not make it easy.
Let’s take a look at the three key storylines ahead of the contest.
Madrid in battle for top four?
After being crowned kings of Europe on four occasions in the last five years, it’s almost unthinkable that Real Madrid will fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League. But that is a prospect they face as their campaign lurches from one setback to another.
La Liga has reached its midway point with the Bernabeu giants fifth in the table, just behind Alaves and a handful of points ahead of a batch of teams with top four aspirations. Their closest challengers are Sunday’s opponents Betis, who can narrow the gap on Solari’s men to just one point with victory at the Benito Villamarin. Realistically, it’s unlikely that Alaves will be able to maintain their unexpectedly strong form throughout the entire campaign, especially following the loss of star midfielder Ibai Gomez to Athletic Bilbao.
And the fact that Madrid are still close to the top four despite their disastrous season so far means they only need a slight improvement to return to the Champions League places.
But another defeat this weekend would tighten up the race considerably, leaving no doubt that Madrid are locked in a battle to avoid being dumped into the Europa League next season.
Isco’s time to shine?
The biggest individual loser in Madrid’s turbulent campaign has been Isco, who has been relegated from an undroppable star turn during his team’s Liga and European double 18 months to an unused afterthought under Solari.
The new coach has only given Isco two starts, and both of those were only in dead rubber cup ties against Melilla and CSKA Moscow. Solari’s repeated refusal to use the Spain international has made it plain that he simply does not want to pick Isco, although whether that is for sporting or political reasons is impossible to say.
On this occasion, though, a long list of absentees in the midfield and forward positions is making it almost impossible for Solari to avoid starting the former Malaga man: Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz, Toni Kroos and Marcos Llorente are all injured, Lucas Vazquez is suspended and Brazilian starlet Vinicius Junior is a big doubt through illness.
Given those circumstances, Solari would have to come up with some very creative thinking to avoid playing Isco – such as repositioning Marcelo as a midfielder – and he will now surely receive his long-awaited opportunity to prove a point to the new manager. And if he takes that chance by producing a match-winning performance, Isco could yet have a future at Real Madrid.
Betis aim to prove their credentials
Hosts Betis have sparkled at times this season, capable of producing exciting and free-flowing football which has delivered impressive results such as November’s 4-3 win at Barcelona, further enhancing the reputation of highly regarded coach Quique Setien.
However, they are also highly inconsistent and come into the game after a dip of form, failing to beat Eibar, Huesca or Real Sociedad in any of their last three encounters.
With their adherence to a clearly defined system, based around short passing and high pressing, Betis can be seen as an antithesis to Madrid’s reliance upon individual moments of brilliance rather than a coherent collective approach.
So this game is a real clash of styles and Betis will certainly not back down from their usual style of attempting to impose themselves upon the opposition high up the pitch. That could open up plenty of opportunities for Madrid to exploit on the counter-attack so it could be an exciting game with lots of chances at both ends.
Big job on his hands: Santiago Solari has another huge test on his hands when his Madrid side travel to Betis.
Out of favour: Isco is likely to start for Real but has struggled under Solari.