The first man down was Gareth Bale, holding his calf. Next came Luka Modric, rubbing his knee. And yesterday morning it was confirmed that Karim Benzema has not recovered from a knee ligament injury that led to him missing the game against Malaga in which his two team-mates fell.
They already knew about Marcelo: a yellow card in the first leg means he is suspended. But the Real Madrid manager, Carlo Ancelotti, insisted that it was important to focus on the men who will play against Atlético Madrid, not on the men who won't.
The question is: which men will they be? For most of the season, Ancelotti’s starting XI has been predictable. Still, the Real manager insisted that his side were not confronted by a huge problem. “A problem would be having to come from behind,” he said. Then he added: “It is not important to win the game, it is important to win in the end of the tie.” It was a curious remark to make.
A 0-0 first-leg scoreline means that for Real to go through without winning tonight, this game needs to finish goalless and for Real to win on penalties. Any other draw and it would be Atlético who go through. That draw also extended the run to seven games in which Atlético have not been beaten in the Madrid derby. Even last season’s Champions League final was 1-1 on 90 minutes. In other words, the last eight results between these two teams would see Atlético through.
That is one reading of it, but there are others. When that first leg ended, it was questionable who had been better served by the result. Real have the advantage of playing at home but Atlético know that the risk of an away goal may condition this game.
In the tournament’s history, only 33 per cent of the teams in the knockout stages who played the first leg at home progressed after a goalless draw. Atlético’s record is rather better, though: they have gone through both times they drew 0-0 at home; in 1973 against Galatasaray and last year against Chelsea, while the same happened against Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League in 2010. Real have a 75 per cent European Cup qualification rate after drawing the first game 0-0 away, the most recent of those in 1991.
Ancelotti described the 0-0 as the "best of the worst results". Yet as the days have gone by, it has seemingly got worse. The most significant injury is probably Modric, who will be out for six weeks. It was no coincidence that Real's drop in form, including two defeats at Atlético, coincided with his previous absence. After a first-leg game in which Real had dominated the opening period, only to be denied by Atlético's goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Ancelotti's analysis was simple: to go through they had to play the same way they did in the first half of the first leg. But without Modric, it will be harder. Without Bale, Benzema and Marcelo, it is harder yet. If they do so, it will have to be with different players.
Reinforce the middle
As for using the same formation, the suspicion is that despite his insistence the absences, particularly that of Bale, are an opportunity to reinforce the middle – often Real’s weakness against Atlético.
At left-back, Ancelotti says the most natural option is Fábio Coentrão, who he had chosen not to risk at the weekend, resisting the temptation to give him some game time after a six-week absence.
In the midfield there are three likely replacements for Modric, none of whom enjoy the full trust of the coach. Asier Illarramendi has started just two games in the competition this season; while Lucas Silva and Sami Khedira have only one apiece. Guardian Service