Rarely had a teamsheet ever felt this significant. Not this season, anyway.
It was just after 7:30 p.m. CET on Sunday evening when Zinedine Zidane's lineup for Real Madrid's clash with Sevilla was announced. Quickly, eyes skimmed down the list, looking for key names. For what this lineup might be saying.
A week earlier, when Madrid had travelled to Gran Canaria to face Las Palmas, Zidane had opted to leave some big names behind. On the back of a midweek clash with Roma, Toni Kroos didn't travel with the team. Neither did Karim Benzema or James Rodriguez.
Once there, Gareth Bale was subbed with the game still on the line.
From Zidane, it looked like a straightforward case of awarding rest to key faces and prioritising the UEFA Champions League. Normal order was expected to resume for the clash with Sevilla—a clash that felt significant in an emotional sense even if it didn't in a league-title-race kind of way.
Indeed, the last time Madrid had faced the Andalusians, they'd collapsed. Their flaws brutally exposed, Madrid left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan battered and scarred, their identity muddled. What soon followed was the Clasico implosion, the Cadiz debacle and the painful loss to Villarreal.
Sevilla had kickstarted the rot. They'd also confirmed Madrid's extreme vulnerability against rivals possessing the tools to hurt them. Emotionally, then, Sevilla had to be overcome; with Barcelona and a Champions League quarter-final looming, establishing confidence, clarity, was key.
So then the lineup came and eyes ran down the list. Kroos? Back. Benzema? Back. Bale? Check.
Real Madrid C.F. @realmadriden
Here's our starting line-up to face Sevilla! 📝⚽ #RMLiga #HalaMadrid https://t.co/y6PDVJGFAK3/20/2016, 6:35:16 PM
Before long, a pulsating game was underway. Madrid and Sevilla traded blows. In patches, the hosts were brilliant, and the visitors were pretty good, too. Eventually, it was the power of Madrid that wore the Andalusians down: Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo all scored, the midfield functioned in a way it often hasn't and Casemiro stood out.
It felt like a template. "Playing like this we are capable of great things," Zidane would say later.
Throughout, James had sat quietly on the sidelines watching on. Twelve months ago, that would have been unthinkable, but there he was. Only with the result decided and 15 minutes remaining did he get the call from Zidane.
What did this mean for James? Was the manager sending a message? Was this a forerunner for something? Where does James go from here?
It's hard to know.
Now almost three months into his reign, Zidane is showing signs of exerting greater control at the Santiago Bernabeu. Possessing the sort of authority his predecessors were denied of, the Frenchman has looked as though he's beginning to shape the team to his ideas. Amid that, some interesting selections haven't gone unnoticed; ditto for some inwardly directed remarks.
Still, though, definitive conclusions can't yet be reached: Zidane is still working with the foundations belonging to those who've gone before him; this still isn't his team.
So how should he make it such?
James is potentially symbolic here.
If the Colombian were to be discarded come the summer, it would represent a seismic shift in emphasis. Madrid would be selling technique, panache and highlights, substituting such qualities in the search for a different essence.
Selling James might also be politically significant. If it were Zidane's call, it would speak volumes of his power; if it were the president's, it would serve as a sort of admission of his policy's flaws.
In many ways, such an admission would be constructive. And yet, concurrently, using James to do so would also be to repeat previous mistakes: acting on impulse. Reaching hasty conclusions. Orchestrating yearly upheaval. Stripping away continuity. Always pursuing the next star and the next name rather than trusting in those already there.
This is the cycle to break.
It needs to be remembered that less than 12 months ago, the Bernabeu—or those who populate it at least—seemed intent on chasing Bale out of town. Fast forward to now, they and it are glad that didn't happen. Bale fought the unrest. He went away, recovered. Improved. Returned better than before.
James can do the same.
For the Colombian, the current season has involved little but toil and frustration, circumstances combining to undermine him and eat away at his conviction. After a sparkling campaign in 2014-15 that featured 17 goals, 16 assists and a highlight reel few could match, 2015-16 has been riddled with controversy. Whistles. Anguished faces. Puzzling moments.
Fault has perhaps been a two-way thing, yes, but it should be recognised that something of a perfect storm of factors has gripped James this season—a season that shouldn't define him and his time at Madrid.
The next one, the response: that should.
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