Real Madrid have come out of the international break in pretty decent shape. All of Zinedine Zidane’s players have returned unscathed from World Cup qualifiers, and in Friday’s training session ahead of a visit from Alaves, the Bernabeu boss was able to call on his entire squad — a rare occurrence this season and exactly the kind of situation the coach will have wanted to be in as the La Liga title race enters its decisive phase.
April will be a true test of Zidane’s managerial mettle, with matches against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in the league and Bayern Munich in the Champions League on the horizon. But he will be all too aware that the imminent visit of Alaves should not be taken lightly.
Promoted to the top flight after a decade-long absence as champions of Segunda in 2015-16, Alaves have enjoyed a remarkable campaign thus far, reaching the 40-point mark with 10 games to spare. El Glorioso have lived up to their nickname under former player Mauricio Pellegrino, who returned to the club last summer to replace Jose Bordalas. Pellegrino has wound back the clock to the truly glorious days when Alaves contested one of the most memorable European finals of all time against Liverpool in the 2000-01 UEFA Cup, knocking out Inter Milan en route to the grand finale.
Barcelona were the first La Liga heavyweights to discover what an entire squad of players worth half of Lionel Messi’s current transfer value can do when Alaves beat the reigning champions 2-1 in the third game of the campaign. In May, the sides will meet again in the final of the Copa del Rey, an achievement that has gone largely unheralded in a country that’s excruciatingly obsessed with every social media utterance from anybody on the books of the big two.
Alaves deserve more recognition. In the summer, the Basque outfit spent less than €6 million on permanent deals and scoured the loan market for players who could fit their modest bill. Unfortunately for Pellegrino’s side, they were unable to dissuade Madrid from inserting their standard “fear clause” into the contract of a player who has been a key component of their hugely successful season.
Marcos Llorente currently ranks fourth in La Liga for ball recoveries, with 260 in 24 games. Earlier in the season he was in the top five in Europe. By comparison, Casemiro is 62nd in La Liga, with 166 in 15 appearances.
It is a shame that Sunday will not afford the opportunity to weigh up Llorente against Real’s first-choice defensive midfielder, who is suspended. Zidane would doubtless agree; in all likelihood, Llorente — who comes from a royal Madrid blood line as the son of Francisco Gento, a great nephew of six-time European Cup winner Paco Gento and Ramon Grosso’s grandson — will be challenging Casemiro for the starting role next season.
Llorente’s contract restrictions will be more damaging to Alaves’ chances at the Bernabeu than his inclusion would be to Real Madrid. The absence of Casemiro would have levelled the playing field nicely, but a more open game can be expected now and that can only play to the home team’s advantage.
Pellegrino has no need to sit back given Alaves’ position in the table, but going mano a mano with Madrid at the Bernabeu could open the floodgates if the home side score early. Only two teams have managed to bag more than three against Alaves this season: Barcelona, as they avenged their earlier defeat in a 6-0 drubbing at the Mendizorrotza, and Real, who won the reverse fixture 4-1 in Vitoria.
It will be down to others in Alaves’ long list of loan signings to take the game to Madrid. Zidane may elect to play Danilo in place of the constantly overworked Daniel Carvajal and won’t risk Raphael Varane in central defence, with the fit-again Pepe poised to partner Sergio Ramos. Otherwise, the visitors will face a full-strength Real.
Deyverson, on loan from Levante, and Atletico Madrid prospect Theo Hernandez are Pellegrino’s most lively attacking outlets, while Ibai Gomez, loaned from Athletic Bilbao, and Edgar Mendez have chipped in with important goals. Alaves are one of only two sides, along with Sevilla, to have netted more often on the road this season than at home.
Pellegrino’s side also top a less-glamorous table: no Primera team has racked up more yellow cards this season. Alaves are approaching the century mark with a staggering 94 cautions in 28 Liga games. Deyverson accounts for 12 of those on his own, a total exceeded only by Sporting Gijon’s veteran hard man Fernando Amorebieta.
Real are huge favourites, but they will be made to work for it. Alaves may well set themselves about the task of evening things up by reducing numerical superiority from the outset, leaving the referee counting more cards than a Las Vegas casino shark. That will be of little concern to Real as long as they stay on top of the deck for another week.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.