BETIS - REAL MADRID
Goalless Betis face Bale-less Madrid
Juan Merino’s side haven’t scored in seven games, while either Jesé or James could come in for the injured Welshman.
This evening’s trip to Seville is perhaps Zinedine Zidane’s first hurdle on his remarkable journey as Madrid coach. Bale’s absence takes away a quarter of the team’s league goals and disrupts the rhythm of the front three. The team will also be without the vociferous support of the Bernabéu faithful, who have bought into the manager’s ‘fresh start.’ What’s more, Betis will be more of a challenge than their league position and statistics suggest: 44,000 fans full of belief will fill the Benito Villamarín hoping for goals. The home side’s season reads like a treatise on drought: no other team has scored fewer goals in the league (just 13). They haven’t scored in 7 games and their only goalscorer, Rubén Castro (8 goals) hasn’t made the score sheet in 9. The team is winless since the 2nd December.
This impotence in front of goal and in the final third cost Pepe Mel his job with the club just 5 points above the relegation zone. Merino, his replacement, looks more established every day and has implemented a fiercer style of play. This new style won them a point at Villarreal and will today, with the same energy and vigour and more or less the same players, look to do the same today. Molinero will come into the starting line-up for the injured Piccini and perhaps make space for Ceballos, the exciting yet inconsistent youth product. The team needs to give the club the stability they’ve been missing for a while now. President Juan Carlos Ollero was on the verge of standing down this week in the latest institutional shake-up and Sporting Director Eduardo Maciá has been on the end of some heavy criticism for the squad he’s put together and for the lack of winter reinforcements. The most cynical onlookers expect them to arrive tomorrow, a way of deflecting attention in case of defeat tonight.
On the rival bench, Zidane is once again without Sergio Ramos while Bale’s injury has posed tactical and diplomatic challenges. With Isco settled, it remains to be seen whether James has straightened out (he didn’t hide his anger during the match against Sporting) or if Jesé will work well in the 4-3-3. Isco and James have, until now, mixed about as much as oil and water: so far they’ve played just 65 minutes together in the league this season, and 138 minutes in all competitions. Ancelotti tried to ensure that they didn’t play exclusively and didn’t manage it. Benítez never really had the chance. Today we’ll see whether Zidane seeks to address the matter.