Real Madrid's last few games have seen injuries dictate selection policy just as much as tactics and form, with manager Rafael Benitez having to juggle his defence in particular to ensure the points keep flowing for his team.
Following an international break which captain Sergio Ramos sat out to recover after the derby and where Gareth Bale made a comeback to regular game time with Wales, the Real boss will be looking at a busy upcoming week and considering where rotations might best be made, with his team playing three games in eight days from Saturday.
Even with Bale and Ramos available, numbers are still down for Real: Luka Modric and Karim Benzema picked up injuries to keep them out in the short term, while Denis Cheryshev also took a knock—though he may be fit for the weekend game against Levante, per D.G. Medina of Marca.
In such a competitive and (usually) consistent league, at the very top end anyway, Benitez knows he can ill-afford to drop more points against sides Real should be sweeping away with ease, having already drawn against Sporting and Malaga this term.
Brazilian midfielder Casemiro looks increasingly likely to play a significant role this season for the club, holding sway in the middle against more formidable teams, but Modric's absence might mean his Liga minutes are upped against the lesser lights too.
In creating a balance for the team, Benitez has to manage the offensive talents—of which there are numerous—against the protection of the defence. Casemiro is the natural answer to that conundrum, and he can set the platform in the team for others to feed the goal-hungry Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale.
It doesn't take much to create a "crisis" at Real Madrid, and the message from Benitez will be clear to his side however patched-up it might be: No slip-ups against Levante.
One win from four games would be headline-worthy in big, bold fonts if three points aren't collected, while the questions over Ronaldo's goalscoring form—five in seven in La Liga, but all in the same game—continue.
Benitez believes his No. 7 to still be "hungry" to perform though, per Marca:
Cristiano Ronaldo keeps on setting new records. Obviously we're talking about a player with a lot of talent and quality, and to surpass Raul as the club's all-time top goalscorer says it all. This is a player who is not only smashing records, but who is still hungry for more, full of ambition and capable of improving on his figures even further.
Speaking of Raul, the final note should go to the former No. 7, who has decided to retire at the end of this season.
PA Sport (h/t ESPN FC) reported the 38-year-old has informed his club, the New York Cosmos, that he was "fully focused on finishing the season strong and helping the New York Cosmos win the NASL Championship," but that his playing career would come to an end with this campaign.
Real fans, if not the club in an official capacity, will doubtless pay homage to the legend during the fixture against Levante.
(BST kick-off times listed per the Guardian)
Real Madrid vs. Levante
Eibar vs. Sevilla
Barcelona vs. Rayo Vallecano
Valencia vs. Malaga
Real Betis vs. Espanyol
Villarreal vs. Celta Vigo
Real Sociedad vs. Atletico Madrid
Getafe vs. Las Palmas
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Athletic Club
Sporting Gijon vs. Granada
What to Watch out for This Week
Part 1: Do Villarreal or Celta have an alternative plan?
Part of the appeal for watching both Villarreal and Celta Vigo is their attractive, offensive style of play: Both love to have possession, they put an emphasis on moving the ball into the middle and final thirds very quickly and then like to link the front men together neatly to create chances.
Tactically they are different, but the end game is the same: Fast football and shots on goal.
Playing each other this weekend, one will have to settle for a counter-attacking game more often than not; who can adapt to that better and find the points to stay around the top of the table?
Part 2: Barcelona's attack is under pressure from all angles
Lionel Messi injured. Luis Suarez back training with the rest of the group, but not yet fully fit. Rafinha out for the season, Munir and Sandro Ramirez both failing to hit the target, and now Neymar reportedly threatened with a six-month ban, per Vicente Seda of O Globo (h/t ESPN FC).
Nothing is quite going to plan for Barcelona's front line this season, with the team as a whole netting 12 goals from seven Liga games—not terrible, of course, but certainly down on last season's 2.9 goals per game average.
Luis Enrique has to continue juggling players' game time to keep the same core of individuals fresh, game after game, while the case to let Arda Turan play is set to go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, per Reuters (h/t the Guardian).
That's all in the future though, and this weekend the manager needs his forwards to find a way to click and put a few goals past one of the most reliably unreliable defences around.
Suarez came up big against Rayo last season—can he do it again?
Player to Watch: Koke (ATM)
Koke has missed four matches for Atletico Madrid through injury, including the Madrid derby just before the international break.
In his absence, Antoine Griezmann has been moved back to the left side of midfield, and the Atletico side as a whole have struggled for domination in the middle and creativity in attack.
The No. 6 himself hasn't yet sparkled this term, so he could definitely do with coming back in style—but the key question for Diego Simeone is whether to bring Koke back on the left, as he has been so far this season, or in the centre of midfield?
Gabi must be anxiously awaiting the team sheet after further disappointing performances this term.
Game of the Weekend: Villarreal vs. Celta Vigo
The unexpected early front runners at the top of La Liga, Villarreal and Celta Vigo, will meet in battle on Sunday to test each others' real credentials—of staying in the top four at least, if not an actual title challenge.
Realistically, both need to have a near-perfect season to steal fourth place, as both know Sevilla will be on the challenge soon enough, and Valencia could also kick-start their year at any point.
Villarreal are top, play 4-4-2 with plenty of pace out wide and structured, clever midfield play through the centre.
Celta play one-touch in attack, combine the four most offensive players extremely well and, of course, have Nolito. He's in form, he's one of just four Liga players with five goals this season already and will be flying after playing a significant part for Spain over the international break.
It should be a fantastic match overall with both tactical intrigues and lots of technical excellence on show.
- Real Sociedad back into the bottom three after the weekend's games
- Rival sides Sevilla and Real Betis to record a third successive win—which would be the best current streaks in La Liga
- Real Madrid to record 28+ shots vs. Levante (season average 20.7, per WhoScored)
- Barcelona to score three or more vs. Rayo