Jose Mourinho hasn't had a great deal to smile about of late. At odds with the world around him, the Real Madrid coach has again been railing at his club, his players, Castilla, the press and the fans at the Bernabeu.
Trying to claw back a 16-point deficit in the league is pretty demoralizing stuff. Although the soundbites coming out of Camp Nou are those expected of a club bent on portraying itself as the polar opposite of Real's brash and bold image, even Xavi admitted recently that the title appears to be heading north again.
With Real's season heading completely in the opposite direction, Mourinho welcomed the winter break. Back at work this week ahead of the match against Real Sociedad on Sunday, the sight of Real's depleted defensive options will have had Mourinho scratching his head.
Pepe underwent surgery for an ankle problem in Porto this week and is expected to be out of action for around a month. Fabio Coentrao and Marcelo are not expected to be available until mid-January. Raul Albiol is also sidelined and Sergio Ramos suspended.
Real's back four for the visit of the Basque side is going to be patched-up, to say the least. Ricardo Carvalho may receive a first league start of the season alongside French youngster Raphael Varane in the middle. Alvaro Arbeloa will occupy the right and youth-teamer Nacho the left, unless Mourinho opts to use Michael Essien there again. However, that stop-gap option did not prove very effective against Malaga.
Mourinho proved his tactical acumen in a league match against Valladolid in early December. Real was shell shocked by the aggressive tactics of the home side and twice went behind from corners. Former Manchester United striker Manucho was a handful that Real's back four couldn't get hold of. Nacho was hauled off at half time, clearly out of his depth.
Dropped points looked certain until Mourinho started tinkering. The Portuguese reshuffled his defense four times, using Jose Callejon at left back and at one point dropping Xabi Alonso into the center.
Eventually, with Angel di Maria and Luka Modric in the fray, Real eked out a 3-2 win. It was to prove ineffectual in the broader sense as a tie with Espanyol and defeat to Malaga followed, but it was a stage for experimentation. Real might as well take similar risks for the rest of the domestic season. It has little left to lose.
The return leg of Real's King's Cup match against Celta is on Wednesday and is arguably a more important game than Sunday's. The Galician outfit is 2-1 up from the first game and will fancy its chances in the Bernabeu. Iker Casillas said recently that the fear factor is gone this season. Mourinho's point made, and a slight case of huevos on face later, expect the Spain keeper back in goal at the Bernabeu.
Real Sociedad is no walkover either. Unbeaten since Nov. 4, the Txuri-urdin has recently beaten Malaga and Sevilla and given Valencia a proper hiding at Mestalla. Carlos Vela is cashing in some of his early promise on the north coast, and in Xabi Prieto, Antoine Griezmann and Chori Castro, Real has players who pull something out of nothing.
Currently seventh in the league, La Real has conceded fewer goals than any team outside the top four. It won't be easy for the home side, but the Bernabeu will accept nothing less than victory.
In good news for Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo is smiling again, and Gonzalo Higuain should be available after almost two months on the sidelines.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!