On Saturday night, Real Madrid host Real Sociedad in what poses to be a tricky challenge. The Basque side sit sixth on the league standings, with 12 wins and eight draws in their 26 games so far.
However, their recent performance in big games has been far from convincing. Imanol Barrenetxea’s side received a pasting in the Basque derby against Athletic Club at San Mames before getting knocked out of the Europa League at home by RB Leipzig.
They have come back relatively strong with two wins against Mallorca and Osasuna. Yet, Ancellotti’s side will fancy their chances against the relatively out-of-form Sociedad side.
The starting XI
Fresh off their win over Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid are in good touch heading into a decisive week. Given that the gargantuan second leg against Paris-Saint Germain is only four days away, Carlo Ancellotti will have to select his lineup wisely. Moreover, the worrying injury status of key players is another factor that could influence the manager’s plans.
Thibaut Courtois will continue to start in goal for Los Blancos. The Belgian international fad a fabulous February and was also nominated as one of the players of the month. After making five key saves against Rayo Vallecano and steering his team to three points, he will look to ride on the high tide.
David Alaba missed the team’s last clash owing to a groin injury, and his place in the lineup was taken by Nacho Fernandez. The Austrian completed training with the group this week and seems set to make his comeback against Real Sociedad.
Partnering him in central defence will likely be Eder Militao. The 24-year-old centre-back has been rock solid for the men in white after a shaky start to his career in Madrid.
At right-back, Ancellotti has two options to choose from. Dani Carvajal is the first choice to start on the night, but Lucas Vasquez presents an equally strong position to compete. Given the midweek clash against PSG, the manager could opt for the latter and keep Carvajal well-rested.
Ferland Mendy has covered the left flank well this season and will continue to do the same on Saturday. The French international will be up against David Silva and Portu on his flank and will have to be at the top of his game.
In midfield, Ancellotti is faced with a dilemma. Toni Kroos missed training for Los Blancos owing to a muscular injury and is expected to miss the clash against Real Sociedad. The German is even said to be a doubt for the Champions League fixture midweek. To compound the manager’s headache, Federico Valverde continues to be unavailable.
Ideally, the coach would have liked to rest Luka Modric ahead of the PSG clash. Now, however, the Croatian’s involvement at the weekend seems inevitable.
Casemiro will be the second player in midfield, holding the fortress from a deep position. The Brazilian had a relatively poor performance against Rayo Vallecano and will look up to recoup his form ahead of the big clash midweek.
The third cog in the wheel of midfield is where the uncertainty lies. Two options stand out for Ancellotti to choose from. Isco has not played in Real Madrid’s last four games, yet, the circumstances make him a valid option to start on the night.
The more probable choice is Eduardo Camavinga. The youngster came on for the final ten minutes last week with no big contribution to the result. He could get a full start on the night.
In the attack, one can expect Vinicius Jr to start on the left flank. The young Brazilian assisted the winner vs Vallecano in addition to three key passes and two dribbles. He will be a key part of the team’s dynamics against Real Sociedad.
No Real Madrid lineup is complete without the inclusion of Karim Benzema. and the lineup is expected to be rounded up by Marco Asensio on the right-wing. The Spaniard was one of the brightest sparks on the field against Rayo Vallecano and will look to keep his good form going.
Dani Ceballos and Isco are valuable options on the bench and could replace Luka Modric in the second half.
It goes without saying that Ancelotti would like to give his forwards some rest ahead of a difficult second leg in the Champions League. Eden Hazard is an option he could consider in the second half. A similar use case could be presented for young Rodrygo.
Not to forget Gareth Bale, who could come on for Benzema in the latter stages of the encounter.
Eden Hazard’s downfall: From brilliance to burnout
Early in July 2018, Belgium’s golden generation had their heart broken for the umpteenth time when Samuel Umtiti’s header saw them eliminated in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup in Russia. There still was a game to come, but it was difficult to believe that Roberto Martinez’s men could put up a brave face once again and battle it out.
The ever-insignificant third-place match between Belgium and England soon kicked off at Krestovsky Stadium. Leading 1-0 with seven minutes to go, Eden Hazard received the ball from Kevin De Bruyne, nonchalantly skipped past Phil Jones, sent Jordan Pickford the wrong way and slammed it into the near post.
The goal summed up everything about the then-Chelsea star’s campaign. Simple, elegant and filled with confidence. Hazard picked up the silver ball in the World Cup that year and was only behind Luka Modric as the best player in the tournament. Fast forward four years and Hazard barely came off the bench for his national team in Qatar.
Still just 32, age was not the factor that saw his prominence for the Red Devils fall so steeply. Moreover, the fact that not a soul batted their eye over his absence spoke volumes about the forward’s difficult four years.
Hazard was always one to be considered naturally gifted. Since the day he first played for a club at just four years old, onlookers knew they were seeing something special blossom.
In 2005, the player’s hunt for professional training took him to Lille, France. In two years, he had his first contract and made his debut for the first team aged just 16. A special chapter in his career thus began, one in which he would go on to score 36 times in 147 appearances.
It was only in June 2012 that the winger moved to Chelsea, a club in which he would go on to rewrite history. Many call him the most skilful player to have ever donned the blue colours of London, even to this day.
In his seven years at Chelsea, he took the club to the Premier League title twice. Although the UEFA Champions League proved to be a steep challenge, he won the UEFA Europa League twice in addition to two domestic cups.
To this day, the Premier League club’s website describes Hazard as a ‘shining star with special skill, speed and a smile.‘ Yet, there are many in Madrid and across the globe who would argue with every letter of that statement with their all. What brought about such a radical change in stature after all?
A fateful move to Madrid
When Real Madrid come calling, very few players even have the mind to think twice about the offer. Los Blancos‘ call is said to be a train that passes only once, and it would be devastating for any individual to miss out on the opportunity having been presented with it.
At the end of a taxing transfer saga, the Belgian International announced his departure from Chelsea to Real Madrid in the summer of 2019. The move involved a fee of €100 million, one that could increase to €146 million with variables.
The premonitory signs of an unsuccessful transfer were there for the taking from the get-go. Hazard arrived at the Real Madrid training camp unfit, overweight and unsurprisingly sluggish. He forced a strong presence in the media to defend his position, but it was clear that he already could not handle the spotlight.
A lack of fitness delayed his debut for the club by two months. Understandably fazed by his new environment and the novel system, it took the forward close to a month to record his first goal and assist which came against Granada at the Santiago Bernabeu.
From there on began a chain of vicious injuries and setbacks that took the player’s career to the cleaners.
Hazard was at the receiving end of a harsh challenge in Real Madrid’s clash against PSG that ruled him out of action for 15 games. The hairline crack was soon resolved, but he was again forced to spend 76 days on the sidelines for a fissure on his Fibula.
The 2020-21 season for Hazard was perhaps the worst any sportsperson could go through. A combination of muscular setbacks and COVID saw him miss a combined 174 days of action and reduced his presence in the squad to a mere formality.
Two years into his Real Madrid career, the Belgian had taken no quantifiable steps towards establishing himself at the club. And things hardly improved for him in his third season at the club, even as Los Blancos won the La Liga and the Champions League under Carlo Ancelotti.
“These have been three difficult years but next year I will give everything for you guys. I’m sure that next year will be mine, I’ve no doubts,” he said emotionally in an interview after being carried to a UCL without contributing.
Yet, with half the season past him, Hazard has only featured 102 minutes on the field in La Liga.
The most embarrassing development in his Real Madrid chapter, perhaps one that cannot be superseded, came early in February. An out-of-the-blue statement from the club revealed that Hazard suffered from patellar tendinosis in his left knee, all while not participating in the team’s last six games.
It has never been in doubt, but his latest injury forces one to ponder again – Is there really a way back from the mess Hazard is in?
What next for Eden Hazard
“Thank you for your love and support, a page turns today”, a clearly moved Hazard said while announcing his international retirement after Belgium’s disastrous FIFA World Cup campaign.
Over four years after winning the silver ball award in his prime, the Real Madrid ace had dropped one of the worst campaigns in a red shirt and was clearly not very happy about it.
Truth be told, many saw the move coming from afar. As harsh as it may sound, it may not be long before the world hears him face the press once more, this time announcing quits from the sport.
Football is a game of mental fortitude as much as it is of physical nuance. Hazard has lived his days as the best, amongst the best and against the best in England.
Little did the world know that the Belgian’s peak years were the ones seen as his stepping stones to greatness.
“I’ve doubted maybe going through enough injuries. I didn’t know whether I’d be at my best. I’ve broken my ankle three times and I don’t know if it will ever be the same again”, he said in 2021.
Now, with two more years and a host of injuries more in his bag, it would be criminal to even expect him to be in a position of mental strength. For all the resilience the winger has shown over the years, it all feels too overwhelming to continue beyond a point.
The hope for Hazard to return to his imperial best will live on. The dream that one day, the former wing-wizard will run through the opposition defence with his signature cutbacks and shimmies of the foot is one that will never leave the minds of Real Madrid fans.
But what seems clear at this point is that Hazard’s days as a Galactico are numbered. The 32-year-old will enter the final year of his contract in the summer and will most certainly be offloaded by Real Madrid.
Perhaps, a change of surroundings could help Hazard gather some of his lost gloss back. But a comeback from such physical, mental and emotional rock-bottom would be difficult even through a miracle. So, it would not come as a surprise if he decides to step away from the game altogether, following in the footsteps of former teammate Gareth Bale.