Jagoba Arrasate, the manager of Numancia, was right when he said, “the result is an exaggeration.”
Real Madrid have effectively secured a place in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey with a 3-0 win in Soria. But the margin of victory did not allay doubts about Madrid’s fringe players.
Zinedine Zidane first used his rotation policy at the same stage last season, when Sevilla travelled to the Spanish capital for a Copa del Rey match. Karim Benzema watched from the bench and Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands as Zidane rested his attacking protagonists. That was the birth of the Real Madrid “B” team — the able understudies who, without fanfare or fluster, played a crucial role in winning the Champions League and La Liga.
Twelve months later, that “B” team has regressed. Theo Hernandez, Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos were anaemic against 10-man Numancia. Borja Mayoral scored in added time, but he had missed several clear chances by that point. He did not present a compelling argument to be Benzema’s heir. Lucas Vazquez — who won two penalties — was the only player to finish the match with his stock higher than before it.
Experience is the key difference between these players and the second string of last season. James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata and Pepe knew the demands of playing for Madrid and could move seamlessly into the team for important matches. The current crop are diamonds — Madrid have assembled the most talented armoury of young players in Spain — but they are rough diamonds. None of this is revelatory. The players on the fringe of the Madrid squad have been disappointing all season. We wait for them to settle and blossom and they keep us waiting. But while that is an inconvenience in the first half of a season, it becomes a significant problem with the arrival of a new year.
After the victory against Numancia, Zidane maintained that “all that counts is the result.” That is, frankly, not the case. The team needed to impress.
If Zidane does not trust his young second string — and they have done little to command trust — a fundamental tenet of his management strategy will unravel: rotation.
Madrid surged through the knockout stages of the Champions League in 2017 because rotation allowed key players to be sharp. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 10 goals from the quarterfinals onward because Zidane knew that his team could manage without the No. 7 in league matches, particularly those that involved long-distance travel. Ronaldo was at his physical peak at the right time.
Zidane is unlikely to have the same faith in rotation this season, and that will harm Madrid’s ability to challenge on multiple fronts. He is unlikely to trust Theo, Mayoral and Ceballos to win domestic matches as much as James, Morata and Pepe. That means more minutes, and more fatigue, for his reliable senior players.
Barcelona’s 14-point lead in La Liga could steer Madrid away from this quandary, paradoxically. Zidane will not publicly admit that the league is lost. But, in reality, it is floating away in to the horizon. He might choose to concentrate resources on the Champions League and select fringe players in the league, regardless of whether he fully trusts them. A third consecutive Champions League would deify Zidane. Conversely, floundering to failure in two competitions would place his job on the line.
Real Madrid “B” peaked in Galicia. “It’s harder to beat Real Madrid’s ‘B’ team than their ‘A’ team,” winced former Deportivo manager Pepe Mel after Madrid’s second string sauntered to a 6-2 victory at Riazor in April. Los Blancos return to that rugged corner of Spain to visit Celta Vigo on Sunday.
The mention of a trip to Balaidos in winter draws a grimace and intake of breath from many people. Atlantic gales bite chunks from the stadium and the threat of flooding is perpetual. Storm damage to Balaidos caused this fixture to be postponed last year. When the match was eventually played, Madrid won with ease on the way to the title. On Thursday, Zidane celebrated his two-year anniversary as the manager of Real Madrid. The visit to Celta Vigo marks the beginning of his most difficult task so far: to keep winning titles without confidence in rotation.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC’s Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93