Real Madrid will have to find the solution to their recent struggles without Zinedine Zidane on the touchline when they visit Alaves after the coach tested positive the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, Real became the latest top-flight team to fall victim to a lower-division opponent in the Copa del Rey when Zidane’s bunch slumped to a 2-1 loss in added time at the undermanned Alcoyano.
A week after being outfought and largely outplayed in the Spanish Super Cup by Athletic Bilbao, Madrid find themselves in another slump.
Their season might well finish without a trophy, with Atletico Madrid marching on in La Liga and Europe’s elite stretching the gap even further away from Spain’s once formidable trio in the Champions League.
But more worrying is that this appears to be a squad in desperate need of renovation and a team shorn of the strengths that took them to the title only six months ago.
The question is whether Zidane is the person for a rebuild, or even if he wants to be. Asked if he still has the backing of the players on Wednesday, Zidane said: “I believe so, you have to ask them. We’ve done good things this season, apart from the last four games. Now we have La Liga and the Champions League and we have to work.
“Whether my message gets through, you have to ask them, I can’t answer that.”
Zidane’s numerous successes have always been built on a solid defence, a dependable core and a relentless will to win that meant close games became narrow victories and pressure brought a reaction.
The Frenchman, although he will have to watch from afar, needs another reaction now, starting at Mendizorrotza against Alaves. When his position came under scrutiny twice earlier his season, the team responded by winning the Clasico at Camp Nou in October, and later by rattling off six straight victories in December.
Real will be without injured defenders Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal and midfielder Federico Valverde for the match that comes after their worst loss of an up-and-down season in which they have beaten title rivals Barcelona and league leader Atletico Madrid while underperforming against much less talented teams. Atletico look to increase lead: Atletico host Valencia on Sunday aiming to increase their league lead after Luis Suarez completed a brace with a 89th-minute penalty to clinch a 2-1 victory at Eibar on Thursday.
A six-game winning streak has Diego Simeone’s team in charge of the title race just past the league’s midway mark. They have built a seven-point gap over Real and have an extra game still to play.
Suarez, meanwhile, moves level with Lionel Messi at the top of La Liga’s scoring charts on 11 goals, the Uruguayan increasingly looking like a player that can lead his side to the title.
He had Marcos Llorente’s pressing to thank for his equaliser but the second was almost entirely down to him, the 33-year-old chasing down a long punt downfield before tumbling over following a clumsy swing of the leg by Anaitz Arbilla. Suarez chipped the penalty coolly down the middle.
Atletico were the victims of an upset in the Copa del Rey a fortnight ago when they lost to third-tier side Cornella, whose spirited run came to an end at the hands of Barcelona on Thursday. Atletico’s defeat by Cornella could have jolted their momentum. Instead they have responded with two wins in the league, against Sevilla and now Eibar, who stay 15th. Also on Sunday, third-place Barcelona visit Elche without Messi, who will complete a two-game suspension after he earned a red card for hitting an opponent in a 3-2 loss to Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final.
Spanish League fixtures (all times GMT)
On Saturday: Huesca vs Villarreal (1300), Sevilla vs Cadiz (1515), Real Sociedad vs Real Betis (1730), Alaves vs Real Madrid (2000)
On Sunday: Osasuna vs Granada (1300), Elche vs Barcelona (1515), Celta Vigo vs Eibar (1730), Atletico Madrid vs Valencia (2000)
On Monday: Athletic Bilbao vs Getafe (2000)