MÁLAGA - REAL MADRID

Young stars Isco, Jesé, Juanpi and Pablo take centre stage

Jesé replaces the injured Benzema while Nacho will start in place of Varane. Carvajal and Sergio Ramos are a booking away from missing next week’s Madrid derby.

Madrid hit the sack last night ten points behind the league-leaders. To see if the title race stays alive, we’ll need to see what breaks first: Barcelona’s physical condition – they wobbled in Las Palmas and have played 12 games more than Zidane’s side this season – or Madrid’s self-belief and enthusiasm. Today’s match-up with Malaga is effectively a ‘match ball’ and Madrid will have to make do without the injured Benzema. The Frenchman has been prolific under Zidane, with seven goals in seven games. The BBC will have to be the JJC, with James and Jesé lining up alongside Cristiano.

Malaga, who failed to score in their first 7 games of the season, won just 2 of their first 14, stole a point at the Bernabéu thanks to 14 saves from Carlos Kameni and sat rock bottom after 12 games, have turned things around. Ignacio Camacho, the tactical and emotional focus of the team, is a big reason why. Since his return from injury Malaga have racked up 16 points in 9 games, beaten Atleti and really tested Barcelona. Five new players arrived in the January window but only one, Uche, will feature today. The fact is that the improvement has less to do with new signings and more to do with the faith shown in two youngsters: Juanpi (a 22 year-old who arrived at the age of 15 as part of the deal for fellow Venezuelan Salomón Rondón) and the 19 year-old Pablo Fornals. These two, together with Camacho and Recio, who returns from suspension, will be Malaga’s heartbeat.

For Madrid, Nacho will step in for the suspended Varane and it’s unlikely that Zidane will rest Carvajal and Ramos, who are both a booking away from missing next week’s derby clash with Atleti.

James took a beating in Rome but will start. Jesé, who featured sporadically for Benitez – “we didn’t understand each other” – has played in six of Zidane’s seven games, scoring twice and on average once every 67 minutes. Today he’ll have his chance to be more than just the twelfth player. And Isco will start on his return to his hometown. Yesterday Zidane challenged him to score more goals; he’s scored just 3 so far this term compared to 11 and 6 at the same stage of his first and second seasons, respectively. Facing his former club in a full stadium, the scene is set for him to shine.

A capacity crowd is expected at La Rosaleda this afternoon but the ‘Sold Out’ signs are yet to go up, with 500 of the ground’s 30,044 seats still to be snapped up. Prices range from €70 to €150 (compared with between €60 and €140 last season).

Nunca antes había firmado un técnico en el hotel del Madrid en un desplazamiento. Ayer lo hizo Zidane y causó furor entre la afición. El Madrid tuvo un gran recibimiento. Cientos de seguidores dieron la bienvenida a la expedición al grito de “¡Isco, Isco!”.

Madrid have played to sold out crowds just three times this season, all away from home. The first was the derby in the Vicente Calderón against Atleti; the second in Eibar where they played in front of a capacity 6,267 crowd; and the third against Villarreal at El Madrigal.