Real Madrid: Zidane scratches B side - Nacho, James, Bale, Jovic...
As Real Madrid head into the business end of the season, Zinedine Zidane knows his understudies are nowhere near replicating the impact of their 2016/17 counterparts.
The last time Zinedine Zidane sent out a truly second-string Real Madrid side, against Real Mallorca in October, things went very badly - and since that 1-0 defeat at Son Moix, he has avoided making such wholesale changes, placing precious little faith in a 'plan B' that has not worked out this season.
True, a weakened Madrid secured Copa del Rey wins over Unionistas Salamanca and Real Zaragoza in January, but when Los Blancos took on taller-order cup opposition in Real Sociedad, a team featuring fringe men such as Nacho Fernández, Éder Militão, James Rodríguez and Brahim Díaz came unstuck at the Bernabéu.
One of the keys to Madrid's LaLiga-Champions League double in 2016/17 was Zidane's ability to depend on a host of back-up players who could help get a result at any ground and under any circumstances.
Those days are very much gone, though.
Nacho, an understudy Zidane could bet his house on back then, has played just nine games this season. After scoring the goal that gave Madrid the three points at Real Valladolid at the end of January, the defender hasn't been given a single minute in LaLiga or the Champions League. He did feature in the Copa against Zaragoza and La Real, and even managed to get on the scoresheet; but his role in Zidane's squad is far less significant than in the Frenchman's first spell in charge.
Militão, who will have to start against Manchester City because of Sergio Ramos' unavailability through suspension, hasn't played at all for Madrid in seven LaLiga and Champions League games. Only Marcelo, who is alternating at left-back with Ferland Mendy, is a regular defensive understudy under Zidane this term.
Having struggled to make an impact, Álvaro Odrizola was sent out on loan to Bayern Munich in the January transfer window. This season, the right-back had managed just four appearances in LaLiga and one in the Champions League for Los Merengues. In a month and a half at Bayern, meanwhile, he has played a mere 70 minutes of first-team football.
When it comes to James Rodríguez, the most pessimistic pre-season predictions have been borne out. After returning from his two-year loan at Bayern, the Colombian featured in seven of the first nine games in LaLiga, but hasn't played a minute in the Spanish top flight since 19 October. He hasn't played in Europe since the autumn, either, and has had a marginal impact in his three appearances in the Copa. In the Spanish Super Cup, he got 13 minutes. He is Madrid's sixth-most used midfielder.
Brahim's recent upturn in fortunes was short-lived. The winger impressed in Madrid's Copa win over Zaragoza and was then named in Zidane's starting XI against La Real a week later, but in the major competitions he has been as good as nowhere to be seen. In LaLiga, he has mustered 23 minutes; in the Champions League, he has played 17.
Rodrygo Goes, whose seven goals still make him the team's second-highest scorer, has tumbled down the pecking order. After being left out of three straight LaLiga matchday squads, the 18-year-old was dropped down to 'B'-team duty two weeks ago, scoring and getting sent off in Castilla's Segunda División B win over San Sebastián de los Reyes.
Zidane appears to have run out of patience with Gareth Bale. The most recent signs surrounding the Welshman, who has scored three goals in 18 games this campaign, certainly seem to suggest so, at any rate: left out of the Levante game, he got 15 inconsequential minutes against Manchester City and remained on the bench throughout the Clásico. All in a season which, as ever, has brought its fair share of enforced absences: two through injury, one because of illness.
Jovic is another player whose impact - which was already fairly limited - is waning as the campaign goes on. Despite Madrid's struggles in front of goal, the Serb was left out of Los Blancos' last two LaLiga squads and was given just six minutes against City. Given Jovic's 60-million-euro price tag, the fact that Mariano Díaz has now overtaken the striker in Zidane's thinking ought to be a source of huge concern to him.
Looking to the future:
Although Zidane's 'plan B' hasn't been a success this term, Madrid have several players out on loan who can bolster the coach's options beyond 2019/20. Despite failing to make a huge impression at Arsenal, Dani Ceballos has already shown he has the quality to be a dependable midfield understudy, while Los Merengues boast two exciting prospects at full-back: the versatile Achraf Hakimi has shone at Borussia Dortmund, and Sergio Reguilón is one of the first names on the team sheet at Julen Lopetegui's Sevilla.
Martin Odegaard has been one of LaLiga's players of the season at Real Sociedad, Takefusa Kubo has shown glimpses of his potential at Real Mallorca, and Andriy Lunin and Luca Zidane are starting to take off at Segunda clubs Real Oviedo and Racing Santander, respectively. The likes of Javi Sánchez, Borja Mayoral and Óscar Rodríguez, who all still belong to Madrid, look to have bright top-flight futures ahead of them.
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