Even though we’re less than halfway through the opening month of 2017, you sense that Real Madrid can wrap up the La Liga title when they visit Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday.
It’ll be Los Blancos’ second visit to the Andalusian outfit in the space of four days, having secured their passage into the next stage of the Copa del Rey on Thursday 6-3 on aggregate. But given the aforementioned tie was essentially over when Madrid won the first leg 3-0 on home soil, the second of these two meetings in quick succession is undoubtedly the more significant.
That’s because Zinedine Zidane’s record-breaking Real Madrid team can make a major step forward in their pursuit of a first league title since 2011-12. A win at what has proven to be a hugely testing venue would be a mark of champions elect.
Ahead of this key weekend, Madrid are four points ahead of Sevilla at the top of the table, although they have played a game more. Having already visited Barcelona and Atletico Madrid this season, Sunday’s encounter is arguably the match in which they are potentially most likely to drop points between now and May.
Indeed, Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli will view this occasion as a chance for his side to thrust themselves into contention for the title. A fearless 4-0 win at Real Sociedad on Sunday was a display befitting of genuine challengers; bringing an end to Los Blancos’ exceptional run would surely make them Madrid’s main rivals in 2017.
These clashes can often be cagey given what’s at stake. But Sampaoli’s sides are always enterprising, always industrious and always entertaining. If Madrid are to emerge unscathed from this fascinating fixture, they’ll need to turn in one of the best performances of the campaign.
Where to find Sevilla vs. Real Madrid on US TV and streaming
Date: Sunday, January 15, 2017
Time: 2:45 p.m. (ET), 11:45 a.m. (PT)
US TV: beIN SPORTS and beIN SPORTS en Español
Streaming: fuboTV (free 24-hour trial)
Since Sampaoli took over at the Sanchez Pizjuan, there’s been an attacking swagger about Sevilla that’s ensured they’ve remained in the upper reaches of the table. In the early stages of the campaign they were involved in some chaotic contests and, sometimes fortunately, grabbed the odd goal to take three points.
There was some optimistic talk of a possible title challenge from some following that flurry. But lately, there have been signs that under their effervescent boss, this group of players have it in them to keep pace with Madrid.
The 4-0 win at Sociedad was the most pertinent sign yet. The Basque outfit are strong on home soil and hadn’t lost at the Anoeta since the opening day of the season. However, Sevilla left them stunned with the incision and ingenuity of their play in the first period, before their remarkable fitness levels allowed them to trample over La Real after the break.
It was a performance that not only contained the attacking vim you’d expect from a Sevilla side, but the kind of savviness you’d expect from a potential title winner. The Andalusians knew when to quicken the pace, slow the game down and, in a testament to their coach’s acumen, slip into different systems during the contest to their benefit.
That fearlessness has been the hallmark of Sampaoli’s management and is something you can bet they’ll show in spades against Real Madrid, as they did in Thursday’s 3-3 draw. Given their lofty position in the table and six-point buffer to fifth place Villarreal, Sevilla can treat this clash as a free hit.
Lose and the focus can shift back to qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League and going as far as they can in the current edition. But should they topple the Madrid juggernaut and move to within one point of the table-toppers, this vibrant crop of players could receive the confidence boost they need to launch an assault on top spot.
The last time Zidane saw his team lose a league match was at home to Atletico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Afterwards, the Frenchman was calm and candid in his assessment, insisting improvements will be made in these gargantuan matches from now on in his tenure.
It’s a promise he’s kept. Madrid won at the Camp Nou, excelled to win the UEFA Champions League and this season, swatted aside Atletico Madrid 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon. On the cusp of another one of those hugely important fixtures, you sense that Zidane will be relishing the challenge once again.
The changes the manager has made to the Madrid setup in his year in charge have helped in making them so difficult to beat; the more cohesive focus and smart rotation, in particular, have been hallmarks of Zidane’s management style, which has triggered this incredible run of 40 matches without defeat.
However, unbeaten records are not what Zidane will be targeting come the end of this season. Not since 2012 have Los Blancos won the La Liga title and while their European success has helped make the domestic drought more bearable, it’s imperative for Madrid that they are a force in La Liga once again.
Should Madrid win at the Sanchez Pizjuan, they’d be well on their way to the title. Although Barcelona will inevitably come on strong this year, putting seven points between the Andalusian outfit having played a game less would be a huge gap to make up.
It’s difficult to look past Los Blancos, somehow, getting a result here, though. Zidane has shown an aptitude for setting his teams up in the big games and you can bet he’ll have another scrupulously constructed blueprint for Sunday in what is potentially a season-defining contest.
Key Battle – Steven N’Zonzi vs. Luka Modric
In terms of style, there are plenty of differences between N’Zonzi and Modric. But both men have cemented their respective statuses as the player who makes their side tick and will have a huge say on determining who comes out on top on Sunday.
N’Zonzi’s development under Sampaoli has been remarkable. While he was renowned for being a physical presence during his time in the Premier League at Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers, the Frenchman was never the most technically gifted player; it’s an area which he’s improved enormously and now he’s having a big say on matches with and without the ball.
In terms of his physique, Modric doesn’t measure up to the Sevilla man, but his influence is just as enormous. The Croatian is often given more freedom to influence the play higher up the pitch in these matches, with Casemiro sitting deepest in midfield. His balance, technical flair and vision on the ball always tends to shine through.
If Modric is to weave his magic, he’ll have to escape the attentions of N’Zonzi, who has been so effective in stemming opposition attacks this season. The Sevilla man has a chance to showcase his improvements with a strong performance against one of the game’s best midfield setups.
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