Real playing only to keep winning streak alive against Ludogorets
While many teams involved in Champions League action are playing for their European survival in the final round of group-stage fixtures, Carlo Ancelotti can pretty much bring a footrest to the Bernabeu dugout on Tuesday night; the Italian manager's Real Madrid side have already qualified for the knockout phase as group leaders with five consecutive victories in Group B, scoring 12 goals and conceding just two in the process.
A European match with nothing at stake is exactly what Ancelotti could do with at the moment: Injuries forced the Real manager to field his four full-backs in the final stages of his side's 3-0 victory over Celta Vigo at the weekend, a game in which James Rodriguez joined the queue for the treatment table after twanging a calf muscle that could sideline the Colombian until the new year. Sami Khedira also found himself on the end of an accidental yet brutal collision last week during the Copa del Rey match against Cornella and will be unavailable on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Sergio Ramos kept up a festive tradition in Basel by incurring a third caution -- and a one-game ban -- to ensure he has a clean slate for the round of 16 doubleheader.
All in all, it is just as well that Real have nothing to play for against the Bulgarian champions; other than the record of consecutive wins, of course. Real has already trumped the marks of Miguel Munoz and Jose Mourinho at club level, and Real's victory over Celta was the side's 18th in a row, matching the feat of Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard in 2005-06. With a league match vs. Almeria on Saturday, the possibility of making it 20 is very real indeed. Even the club record of 34 matches unbeaten in the 1988-89 season has to be considered vulnerable with Real in such rampant mood.
Ludogorets, naturally, will have other ideas. Georgi Dermendzhiev's side can still qualify for the Europa League with either a win against Madrid, or a draw if Basel beat Liverpool in the other Group B fixture. And while Real's current omnipotence represents something of an uphill struggle for Ludogorets, Dermendzhiev can afford to be pragmatic as he was at home. Ludogorets' 4-5-1 formation frustrated Real there to the extent that the visitors required two penalties and the late introduction of Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Rodriguez to eke out a 2-1 victory. Safe in the knowledge that despite playing at home Liverpool in their current funk are quite capable of losing to the Swiss champions, Ludogorets can apply similar tactics at the Bernabeu; avoid conceding and the possibility of European action in the New Year is tangible.
Ludogorets have been happier hunters in the Europa League anyway, reaching the last 16 a year ago, where they lost 4-0 on aggregate to Valencia. Another shot at that competition will suit Dermendzhiev and his players nicely, and a record of one loss in their last 11 matches gives them a decent platform. Spaniard Dani Abalo, formerly of Celta, has been prolific of late, scoring six in his last eight outings.
But there are several factors working against Ludogorets, and Brendan Rodgers' mentor isn't one of them: at "home" -- the Bulgarian national side's Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia -- the Bulgarian A League side had a raucous support and a certain element of surprise as Champions League debutants: the club was only founded in 2001 and was in the Bulgarian third tier as recently as 2009-10. However, opponents have now had the chance to study a few tapes of Ludogorets in the continent's elite competition and the visitor's European pedigree is best illustrated by a 6-2 thumping in the 2012-13 qualifying round at the hands of Basel, who also beat the Bulgarians 4-0 last month, putting an end to this year's Champions League adventure for Dermendzhiev's side. The other fly in the ointment is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ancelotti is expected to rest several key players for the match, but the Portuguese will not be among them. Fresh from scoring yet another hat trick, and breaking yet another Liga record in doing so, Ronaldo is on a mission: 29 goals from 21 appearances in all competitions so far this season is an incredible haul and Ronaldo has only failed to find the back of the net in two of his last 18 matches for Real.
Elsewhere, Ancelotti will hand an evening off to Pepe and Marcelo and go with the back four that he used against Cornella -- Alvaro Arbeloa, Raphael Varane, Nacho and Fabio Coentrao. "Fortunately, Asier Illarramendi has been playing well," was Ancelotti's assessment of his depleted midfield; not exactly glowing praise but the Basque will settle for it. Illarramendi will line up alongside Kroos and Isco, with the German likely to play only as long as is strictly necessary. Kroos' recent comments about being a bit knackered out are quite understandable after 60-odd games for clubs and country in 2014.
Up front, Karim Benzema is also to be rested, with Gareth Bale and Ronaldo flanking Javier Hernandez, who could do with the pitch time and will be eager to get on the score sheet with Real not particularly eager to make his loan deal from Manchester United permanent. Ancelotti has said that Hernandez won't be going anywhere in January, but as the player himself stated this week: "I am not sure what will happen in the summer yet but whatever happens I need guarantees. I am 26 now -- in the summer I will be 27 -- and I must be at a club where I am going to be playing regularly."
The return of crowd favourite Jese Rodriguez -- who will play some part on Tuesday -- gives Hernandez even less time to lay claim to relevance. Ludogorets may be little more than a distraction for Real Madrid as a collective, but there's plenty at stake for the Mexican striker in the next few weeks.