When Real Madrid last beat Barcelona to the title in 2016-17, it was thanks to their superior squad.
As LaLiga resumes this Sunday for Los Blancos, coach Zinedine Zidane will have something similar in mind.
Zidane takes charge of his 200th match as Real Madrid’s coach in the game against Eibar at the Estadio Alfredo Di Estadio as renovation works continue at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The shorter season arguably plays into his hands. The Frenchman’s great success has come in the Champions League. Knockout football. Big moments. Performing when it matters most over short periods.
Ahead of the weekend, Madrid were behind Barca by two points (now provisionally five after the Catalans thrashed Mallorca 4-0 on Saturday), but Quique Setien’s side are unlikely to win all of their remaining matches.
Real have a chance and Zidane knows it. He will be telling his players that they can win LaLiga, a competition he has always valued even above the Champions League. And he may have to win it in order to retain his job.
With Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio available again after injury, he has enviable resources.
“In Real Madrid’s case, it is hard to know whether the player who is better is the one on the pitch or the one on the bench,” the club’s former forward Jorge Valdano said recently.
In that respect, the permitted five substitutions could help Madrid more than it will Barcelona. Zidane did not say on Saturday whether it would or not, but he will be able to choose from a full squad as 12 players are named as reserves.
“They will all be on the bench and I like that,” he said. “They train well all week and I have the possibility of choosing from the 23. That’s good news.”
It should be. Compared to Barca’s small squad, Madrid have an embarrassment of riches in reserve and that will help if a game is not going to plan.
Having overcome Barca in El Clasico to take the lead in LaLiga, Madrid’s disappointing defeat to an average Real Betis side prior to the lockdown has left them playing catch-up again, but Zidane knows there can be no more mistakes. He was under scrutiny then and will be again.
Moving away from the pressure and anxiety of the Bernabeu could also aid Los Blancos, so often better away from home anyway, while the return of Hazard in particular is a big boost.
Former Madrid left-back Alvaro Arbeloa said this week that Hazard had returned ‘like an aeroplane’ to training after his recovery from ankle surgery and for the Belgian, it is the chance to prove a point at the end of a difficult debut season in Spain.
For his part, Zidane returned to Real with 11 league games left last season. It was too late then to catch Barca, but this time it is not and the Frenchman will look to invoke the success of 2016-17 to win this 11-game competition in which Madrid must claim two points more than their rivals to be crowned champions.
With the Champions League looking difficult after Los Blancos’ first-leg loss to Manchester City, his future at the club may depend on it.