Carlo Ancelotti will make sure his Real Madrid squad is at full-strength for next week’s crucial matches against Liverpool and Barcelona by making a host of changes for Saturday’s La Liga match at Levante.
The Italian has one eye on the first Clásico of the campaign, which takes place at the Santiago Bernabéu next Saturday, as well as Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Anfield. Madrid are looking to close a four-point gap that has already been built by Luis Enrique’s side from the first seven matches of the season. Ancelotti’s side lost two of their first three league matches of the campaign but have won their following four, largely thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored eleven goals in those four matches.
Ronaldo, who has made the three-man shortlist for La Liga’s best forward of last season alongside Chelsea’s Diego Costa and Real Sociedad’s Carlos Vela, will start in Valencia on Saturday afternoon but Madrid are set to be stretched defensively. Ancelotti will make sure Sergio Ramos gives enough rest to a muscle injury that is also expected to see him sidelined for Wednesday’s trip to Merseyside.
Raphael Varane, who became France’s youngest-ever captain in their midweek victory over Armenia, is also expected to miss out this weekend alongside striker and countryman Karim Benzema.
“Varane and Benzema woke up with fever and I do not think they will be available for tomorrow, but the rest of our players arrived in good condition,” said Ancelotti. “If Varane isn’t ready, Nacho will play,” he continued. “I haven't thought about how to replace Benzema yet, we might introduce an attacking midfielder or Chicharito, we will decide in the next few hours.”
Ancelotti was already expected to rotate his squad against a Levante side struggling at the wrong end of the table and who have lost all three of their league matches at home so far. The former Chelsea boss confirmed Isco will get a rare start in midfield and that Iker Casillas will continue in goal despite another poor performance on the international stage with Spain. Marcelo is expected to start with Fabio Coentrao not taking part in training with the rest of the squad on Friday.
German World Cup-winner Sami Khedira, whose contract expires in the summer and has been linked with a move to AC Milan and Arsenal, has returned to full training following a knee injury and could get some valuable match action. The former Stuttgart man seems destined to leave the Spanish capital at the end of the season but Ancelotti has left the door open to a contract extension.
“Khedira came back well, he trained with the squad and he's ready to play,” he said. “Of course he's not in optimal condition after missing the last 40 days, but he's an important player for us. If he wants to sign an extension, we have until June to reach an agreement.”
World Cup star James Rodriguez could also be rested after playing in Colombia’s matches against El Salvador and Canada. The former Monaco man has settled well into Ancelotti’s preferred midfield three but Asier Illarramendi or Khedira could replace the 23-year-old and give him valuable rest following a long trip and ahead of a big week.
Ancelotti also reflected on the Copa del Rey draw, with the holders facing a tough task in defending the first trophy the Italian won as Madrid boss last season. The champions should comfortable see off third-tier Cornella in the next round but potentially face a Madrid derby against Atletico in the last 16 before a possible quarter-final clash against Barcelona over two legs.
“We know for sure that there will not be a Real Madrid-Barcelona or Real Madrid-Atlético final,” he said. “I think it will be harder to reach the Copa del Rey final than last year.”
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