Gareth Bale is set to return to action as Real Madrid look to move on from their controversial victory over Elche with a crunch clash against their local rivals Atletico on Saturday.
After suffering a thigh strain in the warm-up for what was scheduled to be his home debut last weekend, Bale sat out Madrid’s 2-1 win at Elche on Wednesday night. In his absence, Madrid required a hotly disputed penalty deep into injury time to remain two points behind both Atletico and Barcelona at the top of the Spanish Primera Division table. The debate continues to rage on in Spain with Pepe appearing to have been the chief aggressor in a penalty-box tussle with Elche’s Carlos Sanchez.
The focus will doubtless soon return to Bale, who has trained at full tilt on Thursday as he aims to kick-start his Madrid career. Since his record-breaking transfer from Tottenham, the Welsh attacker has played less than 90 minutes combined in matches against Villarreal and Galatasaray. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has said that Bale has understandably been physically and mentally hampered by his protracted transfer saga throughout the summer that meant he sat out almost all of pre-season.
Ancelotti will welcome having a player of Bale’s ability at his disposal but faces a challenge of how to fit him into a balanced team. In his only start against Villarreal, the team looked defensively vulnerable as he played in tandem with Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco. Certainly, Angel di Maria offers more than Bale defensively down the right flank. It was interesting that last week Bale was scheduled to start alongside the Argentinian and Ronaldo.
Given the form of Atletico and their threat on the counter attack, Ancelotti faces some tough choices that it may prove crucial to get right. Atletico’s 100 percent record remains intact following a 2-1 win at home to Osasuna in midweek. And, despite the summer departure of Radamel Falcao, there is hope that Los Colchoneros can challenge the dominance of Spain’s big two.
Head coach Diego Simeone has been a huge part in initially simply restoring pride to Atletico after years of mediocrity. Those baron times were made all the more painful for Atletico fans as they went 14 years without beating their great foes. As much as their inability to match up in terms of quality, it had become abundantly clear that a psychological barrier was also present. But Simeone, as well as getting his players playing with fierce determination, managed to instill belief in his squad that they could compete against the best. In May, Atletico snapped their long winless streak in memorable circumstances with a 2-1 win over Madrid in the final of Copa del Rey.
The victory was made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came at the Bernabeu, where Atletico visit for the first time since on Saturday. While Atletico’s performance will doubtless be centered around their defensive organization, on the break Diego Costa provides a huge threat. The forward has scored seven goals in six La Liga games to fill Falcao’s goal-scoring boots in the early weeks of the season.
Alongside Costa, David Villa will expect to come back into the side to replace Leo Baptistao, who made his first start of the campaign last time out. Similarly, midfielder Gabi and left-back Filipe Luis are likely to return to the lineup in place of Tiago and Emiliano Insua, respectively. If they can combine to repeat their Copa del Rey heroics, it will signal Atletico’s best start to a season in La Liga’s 77 year history.