Rested Ronaldo and firing James bode well for Real Madrid's start to 2017
On Saturday afternoon, La Liga will return to action at the Santiago Bernabeu for the first match of 2017, as struggling Granada pay a visit to face tournament leaders Real Madrid.
The hosts started the year in emphatic fashion, defeating Sevilla 3-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey's last-16 round on Wednesday evening. Once again, Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy worked wonders: a lineup without any of his three starters in the forward line -- Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo -- generated plenty of scoring chances and entertained the Bernabeu faithful, especially in an eye-catching first-half performance.
The French manager has yet again overcome a fresh set of injuries -- Mateo Kovacic and Lucas Vazquez fell during the Christmas break -- showing how deep this squad is.
Two additional positives add to Zidane's solid command of the ship. First, even if the sample size is extremely small, it already looks as though he has reached a much-needed agreement with Cristiano Ronaldo to regulate his minutes played, so that the Portuguese striker arrives in top form at the end of the season.
Less than a month ago, Ronaldo missed the last La Liga match before travelling to Japan for the Club World Cup. With that extra rest, he was the key player in the final, scoring a hat trick against Kashima Antlers that won the title for Real Madrid.
On Wednesday, Ronaldo did not even make the bench for the tough match against Jorge Sampaoli's team, which generated some complaints among the Madrid media. A radio commentator for Cadena Ser wondered before the match: "How can Zidane rest Ronaldo against Sevilla? Does he think Granada will be tougher?"
Results are proving Zidane right so far. A year has just passed since he took over and the team has only lost twice, which tells a story of unprecedented consistency. His decisions regarding the management of his 23-man squad have kept most players involved and motivated. At this point, if Zidane wants to rest Ronaldo against Sevilla, he probably has his reasons.
The second positive is also related to the management of his personnel. On Wednesday evening, James Rodriguez sealed his reconciliation with the Bernabeu in his most complete performance since 2015. Most Real Madrid supporters know how well he can score a cracker or bend a pinpoint cross for the forwards at any given minute, but they doubt his ability to participate and be fully committed during 90 minutes. On Wednesday, James took advantage of the chance Zidane gave him to start and masterminded most of the offensive moves that broke down Sevilla's expert defence.
It's still early to know whether this is just a one-off or a change for good. Indeed, James has a few things working against him, not the least of them the depth of this Real Madrid squad and Zidane's tactical preferences. However, his talent is immense, and if he can show this level of participation on a day-to-day basis, he will become a "good" headache for the French manager every time he needs to pick a starting lineup.
On Saturday, Ronaldo and Keylor Navas will be back in the XI. For the remaining spots it seems likely that Zidane will opt for a group very similar to the one that defeated Sevilla, given that Vazquez, Kovacic, Sergio Ramos and Pepe are still out. Another Real Madrid win would bring more pressure on a hesitant-looking Barcelona, who have to play a tough match at Villarreal on Sunday.
Visitors Granada arrive in Madrid in dire condition, second to last in the standings with only one win after 16 matches. The season started off on the wrong foot, as the much-hyped signing of coach Paco Jemez did not bring the expected results in terms of points or style of play. New coach Lucas Alcaraz, more down to earth than Jemez, has not been able to steer the ship in the right direction either.
The way Granada is managed -- as a hub of players that rarely stay in the club for more than one season -- makes it extremely difficult for the team to show consistency. Every transfer window the suffering Granada supporters see most players who have excelled -- even if for only a few matches -- leave, making the coach's job a constant challenge.
Alcaraz also has his share of absentees to deal with. Between the African Nations Cup and a few untimely injuries, he will miss six players in the away trip. It's never a good time to visit the Bernabeu, but in this case, with a returning Ronaldo hungry to score, things seem even more difficult for Granada and present a perfect opportunity for Real Madrid to start the New Year off right.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.