Varane back to bolster Madrid's leaking defence

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

It's probably stretching it to suggest that Raphael Varane's first outing for Real Madrid this season was the cause of Los Blancos keeping their first clean sheet in seven matches Wednesday night, but the Frenchman's return to action was a welcome one.

Varane got his first run-out since returning from a knee injury in Madrid's comfortable 4-0 victory over FC Copenhagen in the Champions League, and he's set to get his first La Liga outing of the season Saturday night when Carlo Ancelotti and his men make the trip to Levante.

Much has been said over who should lead the line, where Gareth Bale should fit in and who the midfield two should be, leaving Varane's recovery from an injury that ruled him out of the business end of last season going almost under the radar.

- Morata likely to replace Benzema

A rare home derby defeat against Atletico aside, Madrid's start to the season had been going well, albeit not in scintillating fashion, but keeping clean sheets has been a somewhat alarming statistic early on. Madrid have managed to keep only one so far in the league, in the 1-0 win at Granada.

Even in the thumping wins over Galatasaray (6-1) and Getafe (4-1), in which Madrid scored 10 goals in the space of five days, they still conceded a goal in each.

It should mean that, although Ancelotti has confirmed he will rotate his squad for the trip to Estadi Ciutat de Valencia, Varane is one man likely to remain in the starting lineup from the midweek win in Europe. A chance to further improve match fitness and a chance to edge closer to getting Madrid's back line up to full strength.

Sergio Ramos was benched in midweek for a rest, but the Spaniard should return alongside Varane to rekindle the fine form they showed together at the back last season. A head injury suffered by Pepe, although playing on to complete the match, could be the ideal excuse to put the Portuguese on the bench this weekend.

The pair have long been expected to be Ancelotti's first-choice central defensive pairing, and they could get the chance to show what they can do for the first time this season against a Levante side who have yet to lose on home soil, but who have also yet to register a victory (three draws).

Levante have also been tricky customers for Madrid in recent seasons -- indeed, they've been tricky opposition for most of La Liga in recent years on home soil. Alvaro Morata was required to snatch victory for Jose Mourinho's men last season with six minutes left, while the year before Arouna Kone's strike was enough to see the hosts grab a surprise win.

A scrappy 2-1 win at Elche in their last league away game was still three points for Madrid, however controversial, and victory by any means at Levante can be seen as a good three points.

But Ancelotti and his men will no doubt be keen to win some of these matches with a flourish. Varane's return should at least ensure some more stubborn defence.

For the world-class individual qualities of Ramos and Pepe, the "raging bull" mentality they produce when playing together is not something for the faint-hearted. A comfortable, error-free 90 minutes you are not likely to get on too many occasions. With Varane in there, particularly alongside Ramos, there's more of a sense of calm, trust and reliability in Madrid's back four.

The fact that Ancelotti has seemingly not fully settled on his very best back four hasn't helped Madrid there. There have been changes aplenty, whether through injury or selection. Marcelo has missed a chunk of the opening matches and has also only just returned to action, while Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Arbeloa continue to battle it out for the right-back slot.

You also attack as a team and defend as a team, and the tinkering with Madrid's midfield two hasn't helped protect the back four just yet. Luka Modric has played well in there but Asier Illarramendi, although producing good performances, has yet to fully take on that extra quality of fully protecting the back line as the injured Xabi Alonso does so well.

Varane's return is a huge plus and, talking after the victory over Copenhagen, he's looking forward to helping Los Merengues tighten up at the back. “We’re only thinking about the Levante game," he said. "We shouldn’t look any further. What’s important is that the team has improved its game and we’re going away happy because of scoring four goals and not giving up any. We’ve played well, won, and were strong behind. That’s always good and we’ve got to continue in the same way.”

The Frenchman's return isn't expected to be the only interesting name on Madrid's team sheet this weekend, with Ancelotti hinting Karim Benzema could be rested and Morata could be handed a start. The Italian confirmed at his pre-match press conference Friday that Benzema, who has not scored for four matches, is still his No. 1 striker, and that a decision to leave him out would only be for rotational purposes. But the match will be a golden opportunity for Morata to show what he can do.

The young fan favourite played well when he was introduced as a substitute in the 1-0 El Derby loss to Atletico, and he netted a late winner in Madrid's last trip to Levante. Benzema needs the competition to help up his own game and get the Bernabeu whistlers off his back. A good game from Morata can only be a good thing for the player and for his fellow forward.

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