Real Madrid travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan for the second time in five days to face Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla in a contest between the first and second-placed sides in La Liga ahead of the weekend.
Sunday’s match is arguably Real’s toughest remaining away fixture of the season, and Wednesday’s epic 3-3 Copa del Rey draw gave Zinedine Zidane a taste of what to expect from the home side.
Sampaoli will not be of a mind to lend Zidane a hand by rolling out the same game plan as he deployed in what was essentially a DREES rehearsal for the Liga encounter, with the home side already 3-0 down on aggregate after the opening game at the Bernabeu.
Even so, Sevilla were the better side overall in the return leg, and Zidane required a mesmerising solo effort from Marco Asensio, a Sergio Ramos penalty and a moment of individual brilliance from Karim Benzema in the final seconds of the game — fortunate deflection included — to extend his unbeaten run to a Spanish record 40 games in all competitions.
Sampaoli is a master tactician and has fielded the same lineup in consecutive fixtures only once since mid-September. The Argentine is bound to tweak his lineup, but the premise will remain the same: to swarm over Madrid from the outset and harass the back four into mistakes. It was a brutally effective blueprint on Wednesday, and Danilo opened the scoring with just the sort of calamitous error Sevilla’s pressure was designed to force. Had the Brazilian’s header not beaten Kiko Casilla, it was only a matter of time before someone did.
However, Sampaoli will be fully aware that even a two-goal lead isn’t enough against Zidane’s Madrid. Sevilla also led in the European Super Cup until the 93rd minute but were eventually beaten in extra time.
The Frenchman has injected a never-say-die spirit into his side, and coming from behind, a traditional Achilles heel for Real, has become par for the course this season, as have last-gasp winners and equalisers during the record-breaking run.
Sampaoli may therefore opt for a five-man midfield as he did against Barcelona, his only home loss in La Liga this season, with the imposing figure of Steven N’Zonzi anchoring a fluid four that is certain to include Spain international Vitolo and the unpredictable Samir Nasri. Both started on the bench Wednesday and will be tasked with pushing up in support of the in-form Wissam Ben Yedder, whose lightning double strike floored Real Sociedad in four first-half minutes last weekend.
The Sevilla boss stated before the first cup game that he wanted dominion of the ball, something his side achieved in part in the Sanchez Pizjuan: 55 percent to the visitors’ 45 overall. Sevilla enjoyed up to 85 percent during the spell midway through the second half when they went 3-1 up, and Real looked likely to crumble under the onslaught until Casemiro was felled in the opposition area.
Only once have Sevilla seen less of the ball than their opponents at home in the league this season — the loss to Barcelona — and Sampaoli’s side average six shots on target per game at home. On Wednesday, Sevilla racked up 10 and rattled a post while Madrid managed just five, including Ramos’ penalty.
Zidane will restore a refreshed Ronaldo to his starting lineup to redress that balance after resting him for both cup games, and Benzema will start alongside the Portuguese after his late and decisive cameo. Zidane may elect to play both as strikers in a 4-4-2 to counter Sampaoli’s plans in midfield. In the probable absence of both James Rodriguez and Isco, it will fall to either Lucas Vazquez or Asensio to play the dual role of dropping back to provide an extra man when Sevilla are in possession and getting forward to pull the home side’s back four out of position.
The problem against a side with Madrid’s devastating counterattacking capabilities is that possession is rarely nine-tenths of maintaining the score. Zidane will have stored away a few pointers from their last meeting, and Sampaoli will have done likewise. The Sevilla boss will not risk a lead as he did in chasing a knockout game at 3-1, and Zidane will be aware that Real cannot afford to allow the hosts to attack with such impunity from the outset.
The trilogy of games between the sides has so far brought nine goals and some scintillating football. The final chapter promises more of the same, and the stakes are high: a Sevilla win will bring the Andalusians to within a point of the leaders. If Real orchestrate another victory they will be very much in the driver’s seat in this year’s title race, seven points clear of Sevilla and five ahead of Barcelona with a game in hand even if the champions beat Las Palmas at home.