Real Madrid play Eibar on Saturday at the start of a definitive fortnight in their season that will stretch a creaking squad and test Zinedine Zidane’s dependence on his ageing stars.
Still with a shot at winning La Liga, Madrid know defeat by Barcelona next weekend would likely end their challenge, with Barca currently two ahead of them and Atletico a further four clear with 10 games left to play.
And either side of the Clasico at Valdebebas will come two legs against Liverpool in the Champions League, where a kind semi-final draw of Porto or Chelsea will only be realised if Madrid can beat an opponent needing success in Europe to salvage their hugely disappointing season in England.
Real Madrid’s focus cannot be so singular, even if the Champions League has stirred their emotions more vigorously in recent years than La Liga, which they won last term in part it seemed because there were no other distractions.
“Everything will be difficult,” said Zidane before the international break. “We have to take it a day at a time because one day people say we’re up here, the next down there. We have to stay in the middle, knowing that our season is still alive and that we have to work hard to keep it that way.”
There can be no letting up against either Liverpool or Barcelona, which is not a new scenario for a team used to playing climax games back to back at the business end of a season.
– Ramos sidelined again –
The difference this time is the resources at Zidane’s disposal, many of them tried and trusted, who with peak fitness and form would be picked without hesitation for a trio of crunch games like these. When the stakes are high, Zidane has preferred to change less.
His problem though is Madrid’s go-to eleven may not be ready for the strain, with Sergio Ramos already ruled out of both games against Liverpool and the Clasico, expected missing for around a month with a calf injury sustained on international duty with Spain.
Toni Kroos returned from early from his attachment with Germany due to a muscle problem while Madrid may not have been thrilled to see the 35-year-old Luka Modric spared only 36 minutes of Croatia’s three World Cup qualifiers against Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta.
Karim Benzema only came back last month from an adductor injury.
“I would like all the players to be healthy but unfortunately it is not the case,” Zidane said on Friday.
Zidane will have to decide whether to roll the dice or risk the kind of rotation that has regularly backfired this season, with Eibar hoping to profit.
Atletico’s last-16 loss to Chelsea means they can dedicate themselves completely to fixing their own stuttering form, which has included only four wins from their last 11 matches.
They play away at fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday night before Barcelona face Real Valladolid at Camp Nou on Monday.
Levante v Huesca (1900)
Granada v Villarreal (1200), Real Madrid v Eibar (1415), Osasuna v Getafe (1630)
Alaves v Celta Vigo (1200), Elche v Real Betis (1415), Cadiz v Valencia (1630), Sevilla v Atletico Madrid (1900)
Barcelona v Real Valladolid (1900)
Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao (1900)