Real Madrid casting for Hazard replacement: City and Barcelona
Isco, Bale, Rodrygo and Vinicius are all vying for the place that was earmarked for the Belgian winger, with Asensio potentially recovering earlier.
The injury suffered by Eden Hazard against Levante on his continued return to first team football means that Zinedine Zidane's plans to have him match sharp for Champions League games against Manchester City and El Clásico have had to be redrawn.
Isco, Bale, Vinicius, Rodrygo...
Hazard's injury opens up a variety of options for Zidane, many of which have been tested this season as the 29-year old has struggled to find fitness in his debut season. Ahead of the huge Champions League home fixture on Wednesday, and then the visit of Barcelona to the Bernabéu on Sunday, there are four players on the shortlist to line-up for kick-off that were unlikely to before the weekend setback. Isco, Gareth Bale, Vinicius and Rodrygo are the front-runners, although there are other options available too, potentially utilising the strengths of Luka Jovic, James Rodriguéz or Lucas Vázquez.
So far this campaign, Zidane has shown that he prefers having four or five midfielders in his side when more challenging opponents are in front of them. With the next two games certainly in that category, we are very likely to see Casemiro, Valverde, Modric, Kroos and Isco together, with it already proving a successful formula in the Spanish Super Cup (semi-final and final) and also in the most recent 1-0 league win over neighbours Atlético. Although it is a line-up that appears to give the coach confidence, it's also worth noting that in that game against Atlético, there were doubts over it, and the team actually improved when Lucas and Vinicius came on in wide positions.
If that isn't the approach taken, Zizou may well plump for the oft-used 4-3-3, despite this system not providing the balance and security that he needs (four goals conceded against La Real and two against Celta). Some of that vulnerability, it could be argued though, was more to do with specific personnel rather than the system itself.
Another possibility for Los Blancos, and one that is also more likely, is the one used in the defeat to Levante at the weekend. A 4-4-2 with non-negotiable Casemiro, and three of Kroos, Modric, Valverde and Isco across the middle, leaving one of Bale, Vinicius and Rodrygo (suspended for Clásico) to support Benzema, another undisputed starter, in attack. The choice of a two-pronged strike force of the Frenchman with Jovic is also available, although as it has hardly been used this season it is probably not the time to test it again.
The candidates each have their own distinct virtues for being given the stage. Isco is involved more than any other when he plays (one pass every 1.36 minutes); Vinicius is the one who shoots the most (one shot every 30.8 minutes) and Rodrygo is the one who needs least time to score (one every 144 minutes). In that sense, Bale stands out with the least to offer...but then again, he has popped up a couple of times in big games with a special moment.
These two games, against City and Barcelona, could prove season defining for Zidane and Real Madrid, so getting his team selection right is key. Thereafter, further decisions will be made until the end of the season, with Hazard still hopeful of making a contribution, and Marco Asensio targeting his own return.