Sporting Gijon and their El Molinón ground have proved trickier opposition than most for Jose Mourinho since he took charge at the Bernabeu. Heck, whenever Mourinho has met Gijon and their manager, Manuel Preciado, whether it be home or away, Los Blancos have struggled, even if it's been a struggle to an eventual victory.
It'd be fair to say, even though Gijon are currently occupying a relegation spot in La Liga, that Saturday's trip to El Molinón won't be a walk in the park, in a traditionally hostile atmosphere, especially when Madrid come to town. This time, however, Los Blancos will have to do it without midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso, who's been my player of the season so far. For me, Alonso (who's serving a one-match suspension) is a bigger loss to Madrid then any of the headline makers this season - be in Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil or Gonzalo Higuain.
Let me start by saying that I'd rather see Alonso missing this weekend's match than next week's Clasico, as would Xabi, Jose Mourinho, and all Madridistas. The former Liverpool man picked up his fifth booking of the season in the 4-1 victory over Atletico Madrid. Had he taken four bookings into this weekend's game with Gijon, he'd have been walking a tightrope ahead of next Saturday's clash with Barcelona in the Spanish capital.
Still, his absence from the team in Asturias this Saturday night is still a blow for Madrid, especially in the atmosphere of El Molinón. Don't get me wrong, Madrid will still be big favourites for three points against a Gijon side who've struggled so far this term. But the Spanish midfielder has not looked better than he has this season, being the glue that sticks Madrid together, both in defence and attack. He's orchestrated games this season, giving a much-needed level-headedness to a Madrid side containing some fiery characters. Without grabbing the headlines, Alonso has been Madrid's best player this season in my opinion, and probably the best player in La Liga to boot.
Although not this season's stats, Alonso's importance to Los Blancos is highlighted in the fact that Madrid have won just three of the seven games he's missed since Mourinho took over as manager. One of those seven games was the last time the sides met at the Bernabeu in April of last season, where Los Rojiblancos inflicted an historic victory over Mourinho and Madrid - historic in the way that the defeat ended Mourinho's magnificent unbeaten home league record which stretched for 150 games.
So who can fill the void for Los Blancos this weekend? Nuri Sahin is seemingly the man for the job, playing alongside Sami Khedira in the centre of midfield. The worrying thing is that Sahin, although a hot prospect, is not yet 100 per cent fit and hasn't played many minutes in the all white kit since his summer move from Dortmund. While this wouldn't be a problem against many La Liga teams this season, it could be against Gijon, who looked get-in-and-amongst their opposition and make life difficult for their opposition. Let's just say the foul count could be higher than usual this weekend. With that in mind, moving Lass to the centre, someone who isn't afraid to put his foot in and do the 'dirty' jobs others wouldn't, and moving Fabio Coentrao to right-back could be an option, with Alvaro Arbeloa also struggling to be fully fit. Hamin Altintop is the other option, but Mourinho seemingly isn't a fan of playing both Altintop and Khedira together.
It's certainly going to be an interesting test for Madrid. They only just managed to take a 1-0 victory from El Molinón last season, and could only muster a point in a 0-0 stalemate the season before. The home defeat last term will also still be in the minds of those players involved last term, especially Mourinho.
But with the Clasico just a week away it's more vital than ever that Madrid return from Gijon with all three points to keep their three-point lead over Barca in tact going into next weekend's crunch match - a three point lead with a game in hand, it's important to add. That, too, is taking into account an expected win for the Catalan club this weekend. Los Blancos currently have the momentum, especially after Pep's men slipped up against Getafe unexpectedly last weekend to give Madrid a six point lead at the top of La Liga.
It'll be interesting to see how much game time CR7 gets this weekend, too. Ronaldo suffered a slight ankle injury in the El Derbi win over Atleti last Saturday night and only returned to training with the rest of his team-mates on Thursday. It seems as though he's been given the nod to start against Gijon, thankfully, but no doubt Mourinho will be keeping an eye on his top-scorer throughout, keen not to have his fellow countryman missing for next weekend's big one.
One last point this week, and another blow for Ricardo Carvalho. I wonder just how long the defender will still be at Madrid given his injury problems this season. As bad as it is for the Portuguese, and of course I wish him a speedy recovery back to full fitness as soon as possible, the set-back isn't as bad for Los Blancos as a club as much as it would have been last season. Sergio Ramos and Pepe have been superb at centre-back, and Madrid's defence has looked better, not worse, since the injuries to Carvalho. When he returns he's likely to return to the bench, rather than the starting eleven, especially with Raphael Varane coming through and being given game time.
As has been the case pretty much since the fixtures came out, I'm looking forward to blogging on the build up to next weekend's Clasico, Hopefully I can kick it off with three points firmly in the bag from El Molinón next week...
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