Saturday was a great day for Real Madrid.
No, Los Blancos didn't play. But yes, Barcelona, their chief rivals—and the team that was just behind them in the standings—lost, which means that a win on Saturday over Levante would put Real Madrid three points clear of Atletico Madrid and four points clear of the Catalans.
It wouldn't be wise to bet against Los Blancos, either. After all, the club hasn't lost since October 26 against Barcelona. That's 28 matches, folks. Yup, you read that right—28 matches! Plus, they've taken 33 of a possible 36 points at home this year.
But Levante are no pushovers. They currently sit eighth in La Liga and come into this match hot, having gone unbeaten in their last eight league matches, including a draw against Barca and five clean sheets in total during that stretch.
So can the visitors pull off a huge upset and bail out Barca? Or will Real Madrid maintain their scalding form?
When: Sunday at 2 p.m. ET
Sunday at 7 p.m. GMT
Where: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain
Chances: Real Madrid (82.7 percent), Levante (6.3 percent) and draw (11 percent), according to Bloomberg Sports
In just about every area, Real Madrid hold the advantage in this contest. But Rob Train of ESPN FC has identified one area where Levante may get Los Blancos in trouble:
It is at the back that Ancelotti has a bit of a problem for this match. Alvaro Arbeloa is out for three weeks but Dani Carvajal is now arguably the automatic starter in the right-back slot. Other than that, Real have no immediate injury concerns, but whether or not 11 players remain on the pitch for the full 90 minutes is something that David Barral has in his hands, feet, elbows and anything else he can use. Pretty much every match Real play throws up a disgruntled former Castilla cadet and Barral is no exception.
Levante's top scorer spent his formative years in Real's youth ranks before carving out a decent career at Sporting, and Levante's game plan starts and ends with the 30-year-old, whose remit is to break up play from the front as swiftly and legally as possible. No other player in the entire division has chalked up more fouls than Barral this season. Sergio Ramos and Pepe will need to be at their cool and collected sharpest to avoid falling into the trap posed by Barral in the defensive third—the odds on Ramos seeing red are probably as long as a Napalm Death tune.
Levante's game plan will be simple—stay compact and maintain the shape; frustrate Real Madrid in the midfield; look to spring on the counter; hope Barral can harass the Los Blancos back line both offensively and when pressing.
Barral has scored just six goals overall this season (though that leads Levante), so his contributions beyond simply scoring take on added importance. For as good as Levante have been defensively (just 31 goals allowed, fifth in La Liga), they've been pretty ineffective offensively (just 26 league goals, tied for 12th).
Goals have not been a problem for Real Madrid, however. Only Barcelona (74) can trump the 73 they've mustered, led by Cristiano Ronaldo (23), Karim Benzema (15) and Gareth Bale (10). So talented are Real Madrid in the attack that Isco has found himself on the bench more often than in the starting 11 of late.
And he's just one of the most promising young players in the world. Ho-hum.
But the young starlet need not give up hope, as his manager Carlo Ancelotti seems pleased with his development. His comments, via Marca.com:
He's played a few games in a different position. He did really well against Atlético and with Spain [under-21s] and is pushing for a starting place. I have complete confidence in him. In the past I had a similar situation with Seedorf and by plugging away he was able to become a key player for Milan.
Ancelotti also recognized the test Los Blancos face in this one, saying of Levante, "They will be up for it and have been doing well recently. With their defensive set-up, it won't be easy to break them down."
No, it won't be. But Real Madrid haven't been having too much trouble breaking down opponents of late, so they should break through in this one, too.
In the battle of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, the former will win. Real Madrid are at home, are the vastly superior side on paper and are the hottest team in all of Europe at the moment (even if Bayern Munich fans scoff at the mere suggestion).
Which team wins?
Levante face the tricky task of needing to remain aggressive enough to disrupt Real Madrid's rhythm, but cautious enough to stay compact to counteract their opponent's devastating attack. Fail to do the former, and they'll resemble a boxer impersonating a heavy bag before inevitably crashing to the mat.
Fail to do the latter, and the dam will quickly break.
Either way, Levante seem likely to fail, but they won't make things easy. Look for Real Madrid to win in uneasy fashion, 1-0.