Eight games, eight wins and eight clean sheets. January was a very good month for Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid.
Not only did they take care of their own business, but Barcelona and Atletico Madrid dropped points to allow Los Blancos to cut the gap between themselves and the top two to a solitary point.
If February is going to unravel in a similar manner, then they will have to do what no other team has done in La Liga: win at Athletic Bilbao’s new San Mames on Sunday night.
Barcelona are among the sides to have already left Bilbao pointless. Atletico did manage to win there in midweek, 2-1; however, you have to wonder if that win would have been possible were Athletic not throwing men forward late on, looking for a way back in to the Copa del Rey tie.
In his pre-match press conference Ancelotti acknowledged that Madrid “will have to be at their very best to leave with three points” (h/t Spanish outlet AS).
They will have to be at their best without Gareth Bale, though, after Ancelotti confirmed he will “not travel” with the rest of the squad.
The Welshman did train in the gym on Saturday morning according to Marca (Spanish), continuing to work on strengthening his left calf, but is not in shape to play a competitive match.
Bale sat out the midweek win over Espanyol in the Copa, and his replacement in that match, Jese Rodriguez, could be given another chance to impress this weekend. Ancelotti also suggested Asier Illarramendi is another option, with Angel di Maria pushed further forward.
There was some good news for Ancelotti on Saturday morning, though, as Dani Carvajal returned to full training with the group. The right-back has become the undisputed starter in the league in 2014 ahead of Alvaro Arbeloa.
Elsewhere it will presumably be a case of not changing a winning formula as far as the Italian coach is concerned.
Diego Lopez will continue as the La Liga goalkeeper, as Iker Casillas remains restricted to Copa del Rey and Champions League matches.
Sergio Ramos, celebrating 10 years at Madrid this weekend, will partner with Pepe in the middle of defence, although Raphael Varane is inching ever closer to a return—he will head to Bilbao with the rest of the squad.
Marcelo will complete the back four.
As for midfield it seems that Ancelotti has at last struck his favourite formula. A large part of that can be attributed to the fact that Luka Modric has been in such fine form. Former Madrid forward Predrag Mijatovic has suggested he’s become as “important as Ronaldo” to Marca (via Football-Espana).
The Croatian has been joined in the middle by Xabi Alonso and the impressive and energetic Angel di Maria in the middle of the park recently, and despite Bale’s absence, there’s little reason to suggest that should be tinkered with for such a tough game.
Jese, in Bale’s absence, is favourite to start ahead of Illarramendi and will be joined in the front three by first-team regulars Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Predicted Real Madrid XI: Diego Lopez; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Angel di Maria; Jese Rodriguez, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo