FEATURE | Real Madrid to welcome injured stars back for title run-in

Real Madrid’s 2-0 El Clásico victory against Barcelona feels so distant already. It was only on March 1, but it feels like a lifetime ago.

Real’s win, which saw them level the head-to-head battle with 96 wins apiece, moved Zinedine Zidane’s side to take top spot of La Liga, ahead of the Catalans.

You might need to go and watch the match highlights to believe what you are reading is true.  

Not only have Los Blancos since dropped back to second place after a 2-1 loss to Real Betis, but no matches have been played since March 10 (Real Sociedad’s 2-1 win at Eibar) with the league postponed until further notice due to the coronavirus.

After falling to their lacklustre defeat at the Benito Villamarín, thanks to former Barça player Cristian Tello’s late goal, Real may well feel better than Quique Setién’s side about the prolonged break.

Just as Barça’s relatively-new manager began to build some momentum, with a win against Betis, a narrow victory over high-flying Getafe, a 5-0 thrashing of Eibar and a respectable 1-1 draw against Napoli in the UEFA Champions League, the brakes have been put on their season – again – just as they reclaimed top spot.

Meanwhile, Real have time to recuperate as they bid for a first league title since the 2016-17 season.

Now there is no guarantee the league season will resume, it may be announced null and void ahead of the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign, but if it should, Real are likely to be in a much stronger position than they were at full-time against a Nabil Fekir-inspired Betis.

Thibaut Courtois suffered a left adductor muscle injury in the loss to Betis, and was ruled out by the club for their Champions League round of 16 second leg against Manchester City, their first fixture casualty of the coronavirus.

The Belgian has been a standout player for Real this season, and many would argue he has outperformed Marc-André ter Stegen and Jan Oblak. Needless to say, Zidane’s side would be worse with Alphonse Areola in goal.

Courtois is expected to be fit for the start of April, meaning he is likely to be back in goal when the season restarts.

So too will be Marcelo. He suffered a hamstring injury, a cruel blow after a recent upturn in form, but he is likely to be able to return for the revised end to the 2019-20 season.

Ferland Mendy has been in great form during his debut season at left-back, but a player of Marcelo’s experience could prove vital for Zidane and his side as a close-fought run-in beckons.

But it is not just recently-injured players who could benefit. Marco Asensio looked likely to miss the entirety of the 2019-20 season when he ruptured his cruciate ligament back in July, but he could well be back in the first-team picture by the time football returns to the Santiago Bernabéu.

Though he may not command a starting spot in the Real side straight away, he is certainly a great option off the substitutes’ bench to win vital points.

And then there’s Eden Hazard, of course. He suffered a fractured ankle in a 1-0 defeat to Levante in February and was predicted to be out until late May, or early June. Suddenly, it’s becoming a time frame that could see him ready to feature in the final weeks of the season.

No fixture postponement imaginable, though, can prevent Sergio Ramos’ Champions League suspension, though.

It is not only Real with an advantage, however. Barça could see Luis Suárez return from knee surgery in May for the revised end to the campaign, and Sergi Roberto is already close to a return, too.

But it is Real who will likely welcome more important players to the fray, and Barca’s upturn in fortunes (aside from their El Clásico defeat) has been stopped in its tracks, just as they threatened to pull away and win a third consecutive league title.

Ryan Plant

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