"We needed a match like this," said a relieved Zinedine Zidane in the postmatch news conference, right after Real Madrid defeated Real Betis 6-1 on Saturday. In the days before the visit to Sevilla, the French coach had felt the pressure of four consecutive draws, and his joy with the team's performance was evident.
Zidane keeps using the word "intensity" as the solution to all the issues the squad may have. Indeed, the only way that a formation such as the one he prefers -- with three forwards with little defensive appetite like Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo -- will generate results is if every single member of the lineup plays with his utmost intensity.
That intensity in a high press prevents opposing teams from finding space in midfield, the biggest weakness of that tactical disposition. On Monday, Raphael Varane touched upon these same topics in his Champions League prematch news conference.
The match against Betis showcased exactly what Zidane wanted from his team: focus, speed, defensive anticipation and quick ball movement. Two unanswered questions remained, though.
First, at that level of physical effort, Zidane knows that the starters won't last all 90 minutes, but his rotation and substitutions aim to compensate for that. With the endless string of injuries the club has suffered since 2014 in mind, the question must be asked whether this squad can keep playing this extremely demanding version of a 4-3-3 for the whole season and reach May in top form.
Second, Betis demonstrated that unless coach Gustavo Poyet pulls a rabbit out of his hat, they will struggle mightily this season. Zidane will have to test the approach against more skilled and more physical sides.
That test will have to wait, as Real Madrid's next opponent does not look demanding enough to put the model under serious stress. On Tuesday, they host Legia Warsaw at the Santiago Bernabeu. After two matches in this group stage of the Champions League, the Polish side sit bottom of Group F, with no points and eight goals conceded -- six vs. Borussia Dortmund and another two vs. Sporting. In their domestic league, they are 12th in the 16-team table, also a disappointing situation for a club who won three of the last four Polish league titles.
Therefore, this Champions League outing looks like a good opportunity to rotate the lineup and get some fresh legs into the team. Two names immediately come to mind: Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez, who have mostly participated coming off the bench but have delivered when required. Another likely starter is Isco, keen to keep shining after a fantastic performance against Betis. Finally, James Rodriguez has recovered from his calf injury and, according to Zidane, is ready to play.
Judging by his public statements, the manager will field a mixed team with some starters who appear to play themselves into shape season after season, such as Ronaldo, and a few of the younger overachievers. Some players with more playing time under their belts, such as the in-shape Toni Kroos, Bale or Dani Carvajal, will be rested to avoid another undesired injury.
Obviously, Real Madrid cannot drop points at home vs. Legia, but even with the rotations and the injuries (Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Fabio Coentrao are still out), their lineup looks intimidating enough. A reasonable guess would include Keylor Navas; Danilo, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo; James, Mateo Kovacic, Isco; Lucas Vazquez, Morata and Ronaldo.
The biggest question mark is Benzema. The French striker, picking up his form bit by bit, has recently been subjected to controversy over remarks from France's prime minister. Zidane commented on the situation on Monday, but the manager might want to leave out his No. 9 to avoid further noise.
The match has been classified as high risk by the local authorities because of the well-known section of radical supporters of Legia who, true to their form, might be looking for trouble around the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hopefully, all the intensity talk will have to do with the developments on the pitch.