Ronaldo, Benzema, but no Bale - Real Madrid face major Clasico conundrum

Gareth Bale Real Madrid Leganes La Liga
With the Welsh winger sidelined through injury, Zinedine Zidane will be forced to rethink his tactics for the Camp Nou clash on Saturday


Time for another change. With 16 players out injured at various times this season, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has had to shuffle his pack on a number of occasions already in 2016-17. And, with Gareth Bale missing against Barcelona on Saturday, there is another rethink required.

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Madrid started the season without any of Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema in the UEFA Super Cup clash against Sevilla. Bale had only just returned from holiday following his run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals with Wales, while the Portuguese was still sidelined after injuring his knee in the final of the same competition and the French forward was struggling with a hip problem.

Zidane's side came through it as Sergio Ramos' late leveller forced extra time in Trondheim and Real claimed the trophy. Bale returned in the opening round of La Liga as Madrid won 3-0 at Anoeta and the 27-year-old has been present ever since. Until now, that is. After picking up an ankle injury away to Sporting CP on November 22, Bale underwent surgery on Tuesday and is now set for a long spell on the sidelines.

After his famous forward line were all missing from the game against Sevilla, Zidane has had to cope without Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Alvaro Morata, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Keylor Navas and more in the current campaign. And, to his credit, Real remain unbeaten from 21 matches in all competitions (32 in total including the end of last season).

Perhaps the toughest test of all so far this term was the recent trip to Atletico for the Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderon. In that one, Zidane surprised Diego Simeone with a 4-4-1-1 formation, using Isco in a playmaker role behind Ronaldo as Bale and Lucas Vazquez operated as more orthodox wingers in midfield.

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It worked well because Isco was utilised - as he has been rarely in his time at Real - in his best position, while Cristiano was absolved of defensive duties in the centre-forward role, Bale and Lucas working extremely hard in both defence and attack alongside Mateo Kovacic and Modric in midfield.

Many believed Zidane should apply something similar in the Clasico, but with Bale missing, it is back to the drawing board once again. One thing, though, is for certain: Benzema and Ronaldo will both be in the team on Saturday.

"We know the importance he has," Zidane said when asked about Benzema on Friday. "It's evident he gives us so much and even more in a game like this one. There are players who are an example, like Cristiano, and I believe he will give us so much in his favourite position. But it's the team that will be important." 

Ronaldo's favourite position is, of course, starting out from the left. With Benzema to be involved and Isco likely to be included as well, that means Zidane may well opt for a 4-2-3-1 system, with Cristiano, Isco and Lucas Vazquez behind Benzema. And further back, Modric and Kovacic (or Casemiro) will shield the defence.

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Another alternative is to play 4-3-3 with Lucas in the Bale role. That would represent a like-for-like swap, the Galician lining up in the Welshman's usual spot on the right. However, that system would not suit Isco and, if Zidane opts to play with the former Malaga midfielder, he would be better suited in a number 10 position as at Atletico recently.

Zidane could even decide to pick both Casemiro and Kovacic alongside Modric in a more defensive-minded approach, using the pace of Lucas and Ronaldo on the counter-attack to try to hurt Barcelona. But the Frenchman is likely to want more creativity than that from his midfield, so Isco seems set to start.

Whatever XI he chooses, however, will have to work tirelessly - to a man - to compete against Barca. That includes Ronaldo and also Benzema. Because securing a victory at Camp Nou is difficult enough, but without Bale, winning the Clasico will be that little bit more difficult this time around.