Santi and Real must up ante or face top four fight

Huge game ver­sus Betis

Sport360 - - Front Page - By Andy West @ andy­west01 ✉ ed­i­to­[email protected]

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.

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