The FIFA international break has been kind to Zinedine Zidane. Not only have his squad returned unscathed and not overly taxed by globe-crossing international commitments, several of his players enjoyed profitable sojourns with their national sides.
The main thrust of pre-match intrigue in the pro-Madrid dailies ahead of Saturday’s game against Las Palmas is not who will play but who won’t. With fixtures against Juventus and Atletico Madrid in the course of the next week, apart from a few general exceptions and the suspended Dani Carvajal, whoever turns out on Gran Canaria can reasonably expect they won’t do so in Turin.
Gareth Bale and Isco will be quickest to the team sheet when Zidane pins it to the wall after shining for their countries but being denied the opportunity to do so in Madrid’s weightier matches of late. Zidane has shown a preference for the extra balance and greater defensive contribution that Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio lend to the team and it paid dividends against PSG in the Champions League last 16.
It may be that Zidane will require a lock-picker in Turin against a Juve side that will aim to keep the door bolted for 90 minutes and that will give Isco some hope of a key role next Tuesday but Bale seems destined to play the part of an impact player from the bench and given his Chinese odyssey he may start from there on Saturday.
Madrid have come unstuck in the Estadio Gran Canaria before, in 2016-17, when Cristiano Ronaldo was far from amused at being substituted with 20 minutes to go down 2-1. The Portuguese has now taken on board that he cannot play every minute of every game and may be spared Saturday’s fixture in keeping with Zidane’s management of his star player at the same stage last season.
The Frenchman will be reluctant to repeat the experiment of playing Bale as a lone striker as he did in the loss at Espanyol, which may open up an opportunity for Borja Mayoral to make a rare club appearance alongside Karim Benzema.
The eventual 2-2 draw on Gran Canaria last season was masterminded by Quique Setien, who repeated the trick in the Bernabeu by matching Zidane’s side blow-for-blow in a pulsating 3-3 draw that the visitors should probably have won.
Las Palmas shot themselves squarely in the foot two months later when Setien announced he would be leaving at the end of the season, citing “irreconcilable differences.” The Canary Islanders’ fortunes have declined sharply since while Betis, who snapped Setien up, are eighth and just two points out of the Europa League places.
In a bid that smacked more of desperation than diligence, Paco Jemez was hired as the club’s third permanent coach of the season in December to keep La Union in the Primera.
For those uninitiated in the cult of Paco, you could do worse than picturing a trimmer, Spanish Sam Allardyce and a coach who has become as well-known for his sartorial decisions on the touchline than his tactical ones beyond it.
Jemez is a coach who is unafraid to talk a big game — he once suggested he could be the man to take on the Spain job — and he will certainly relish the opportunity to take on the European champions. However, in recent weeks Jemez has assumed the demeanour of a man who has pulled up a stool at the last chance saloon to find that a poisoned chalice is the only thing being served.
Jemez has been hindered by Las Palmas’ need to balance the books, losing his best player, Jonathan Viera, in February but he has also gone to great lengths to make it plain that the Canary Islanders’ current mess is of their own making, using his unveiling to send a message to the players that they will bear as much responsibility as he does for whatever the season brings.
That is a convenient part-truth: a record of two wins in 12 games, and one of those against Malaga, has hardly helped to stave off relegation fears or restore Jemez’s reputation after a fractious spell at Cruz Azul. His time in Mexico is best remembered for him being being sent off in a friendly, offering to fight Club America manager Ricardo La Volpe and offering his middle finger to his own fans.
Jemez displayed a magic touch at Rayo early in his career and he would dearly love to land one on the nose of Zidane’s reigning La Liga champions. His opposite number on Saturday will aim to use the game to bring a few players back up to speed and hand others a rest after the international break, fielding an unfamiliar side with some fringe squad-fillers included.
That may appeal to Jemez’s sense of adventure and any positive result will be celebrated wildly as the home side seek to make up a six-point gap to Levante in 17th. Real, meanwhile, have their eyes firmly fixed on Juventus and will approach the game accordingly.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.