Real Madrid’s starting XI more or less picks itself, and the identity of the players selected by Zinedine Zidane for Saturday’s Madrid derby against Atletico came as no surprise whatsoever.
But there’s a growing sense that the long-established hierarchy of stars at the Bernabeu is under heavy pressure for the first time in years, and Zidane would be well advised to consider freshening things up for the remainder of the season – starting with Wednesday’s mouth-watering Champions League tie with Bayern Munich.
In particular, Gareth Bale does not look worthy of a place in the starting line-up at the moment, continuing a decidedly underwhelming run of form with a tepid performance against Atletico.
Let’s not exaggerate – the Welshman was by no means terrible, working hard both with and without the ball and having the right attitude. During his four seasons in Spain, Bale has shown enough attributes to prove that he possesses more than enough quality to excel at the highest level, and at 27 he still should have a few more years as a key player for Los Blancos.
But it just wasn’t happening for him on Saturday, and the only surprise about Zidane’s decision to replace him with Lucas Vazquez was that it took him until the 81st minute, by which time Madrid were well and truly on the back foot and Vazquez had little opportunity to exert an impact.
This has been a tough season physically for Bale, whose long summer with Wales has been followed by a series of niggling injuries, restricting him to just 16 starts in La Liga and preventing him from finding his rhythm.
Those extenuating circumstances no doubt explain why Bale is currently below his best, and while he’s not performing at his optimum level he quite simply should not be in the team. That is especially the case because Zidane is blessed with a wide array of outstanding options. Isco, in particular, was unfortunate not to start after a batch of excellent performances for both club and country.
There’s also James Rodriguez, who has played well enough to deserve far more than the eight league starts he has been granted by Zidane. Vazquez is a different kind of player, with his directness and tenacity always troubling opposition defences, while young Marco Asensio has all the ability to become a major superstar.
All four of those players are good enough to seriously challenge the assumption that Bale is an unquestioned starter whenever he is fit, and they are also flexible enough to allow Zidane to employ the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations he has alternated between this season.
To an extent, the same is true of Karim Benzema, who has been outscored in La Liga this season by back-up Alvaro Morata – the Spaniard has netted 11 goals to Benzema’s nine, despite playing 600 minutes fewer, and Zidane would be fully justified in starting Morata in Munich. It’s a similar story in midfield, where Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been below their best in recent weeks, with Isco, James and Mateo Kovacic all waiting impatiently in the wings.
In fairness to Zidane, he does regularly rotate his squad and ensures that every player gets a decent amount of playing time.
But when the big games roll around, he becomes conservative and reverts to his template line-up.
That needn’t be the case, and there is every reason for the ‘Gala XI’ to be shaken up with a new face or two – starting in Munich on Wednesday.