<
>

Are Real Madrid better off without 'BBC' of Benzema, Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Tuesday evening, Real Madrid will play the biggest match of the season so far. A positive result in the second leg of the Champions League round of-16 in Napoli would see them reach the quarterfinals, reinforcing the morale of the squad, while elimination could have disastrous consequences on Zinedine Zidane's team.

Curiously enough, most conversations in Madrid have left the opposition aside. Napoli's solid squad, their striking power or the huge impression that the Sao Paolo can make on visiting teams have only merited minor comments, while the bulk of the analysis has gone to one recurring topic: BBC or no BBC?

Zidane's insistence on starting the BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) as soon as the trio resembles something remotely close to a decent shape concerns most analysts, but especially fans.

On Monday, both Marca and AS, the biggest sports journals in Spain, ran surveys asking their respective readers whether or not Zidane should use those three forwards. The results, quite similar, showed that around 70 percent of participants preferred not to see them all together in the starting XI.

The issue has been around for some time. When fit, Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo can find holes in any defence and their performances in big European nights (such as the memorable win in Munich or their two Champions League titles) are hard to forget.

However, given their proclivity to pick up injuries (Bale and Benzema in particular but, increasingly, Ronaldo too), inability to play consistently of late (particularly in Benzema's case) and lackadaisical attitude to the defensive side of their duties as matches progress, most fans seem to prefer other alternatives.

Sunday's match at Eibar was a strong statement for those alternatives. This season, the squad is overwhelmingly deep in midfield, probably the deepest this century. Leaving so much young, energetic talent on the bench seems hard to accept when the starters don't look that dependable.

A youngster such as Marco Asensio, who had not played a single minute for the whole month of February, drove Eibar's defence crazy with his movement, speed and skill. He added an extra energy that the regular starting trio rarely displays for 90 minutes. The same could be said of James Rodriguez, Isco and Mateo Kovacic, three more benchwarmers that add determination and vigour on top of their class whenever they get a chance to play.

What we saw in Eibar, and in several other matches in which Zidane opted for formations such as 4-2-3-1 or a classic 4-4-2 without the trio, was a close-knit unit who defended together, kept the ball under control and showed tireless insistence in charging towards the opposition's goal. Maybe they did not have the inventiveness and the skill of the BBC in their prime, but their solid work made them harder to beat.

Of course, Zidane defends his beliefs: "What really matters is not the formation, but the intensity," he said in Monday's prematch news conference. Even with the rested Bale and Cristiano -- both did not play on Sunday -- and the recovered Benzema, a shadow of a doubt must have crossed the French manager's mind when considering Tuesday's starting line-up.

Despite a 3-1 advantage after the first leg, the trip to Napoli won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination. The gates of the Sao Paolo will open six hours before the match, so that Neapolitans can warm up and get ready for the match on site. Even though the stadium can hold 60,000 spectators, no one doubts that there will be plenty more around the stadium at kick off time.

Napoli's line up looks intimidating as well, especially from midfield. Their attacking trio of Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, is as fast and skilled as they get. Behind them, the talented Marek Hamsik is only five goals away from equalling Diego Maradona's record as Napoli's all-time top-scorer, while the 19-year-old Amadou Diawara, talented but a bit too self-confident, leads the midfield line well.

The Italian club's weakest point comes at the back, and that is probably Zidane's rationale behind another likely start for the BBC. Raul Albiol, never the fastest defender, would suffer against Bale or Ronaldo, even more if Napoli charge forward and the Real Madrid strikers can find some space to attack.

With the lead in mind, Zidane will choose between a controlled game, with more players in midfield, and staying back to attack on the counter. Intensity will be the key, but whether the squad are better or with or without the BBC remains to be seen.