Three takeaways from Zidane's press conference ahead of Al Jazira clash

Matt Jones 13/12/2017
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Holding court: Zinedine Zidane.

Zinedine Zidane spoke to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday night’s clash between Real Madrid and local side Al Jazira in the Club World Cup semi-finals.

Here are three takeaways from the Frenchman’s chat with the press.

BARCA ON THE BRAIN

He can say what he wants in the presence of cameras and smartphones, but Zidane will have one eye on a festive treat of a Clasico with Barcelona two days before Christmas.

The Los Blancos boss revealed he has a fully-fit squad of 21 players to choose from in the UAE, and that will please him as he will likely be using every single one of them for what will surely be a Club World Cup double-header.

While certain players, such as Gareth Bale, may normally be wrapped in cotton wool, the Frenchman is likely to want to see the Welsh flier return to action in order to assess his fitness ahead of the Clasico, while also giving other players likely to replace him should he not feature at the Bernabeu some valuable rest time.

Zidane: “I’m very happy to have all the players ready. We have 21 training, which is important for a coach.”

ANOTHER TROPHY, ANOTHER RECORD TO CHASE

On the flip side to there being more important games on the horizon, Zidane will also be fully aware that Real can go level with the Blaugrana on three FIFA Club World Cup titles should they win back-to-back trophies.

The Spanish duo and Braziil’s Corinthians are the only sides to win the trophy multiple times, while Real will now victory in Abu Dhabi on Saturday will see them clinch another record by being the only team to retain their trophy.

With that in mind and the wealth of talent at his disposal, not to mention weaker opposition than they normally face, even if Zidane gives his fringe and young players a chance to shine, they should still have too much firepower for a depleted Pride of Abu Dhabi.

Zidane: “We want to defend the title we won last year. For that we have come here, it has been a long trip, it’s a competition we want to win, we want to go back with the trophy.”

REAL WARY OF A COSTLY SLIP-UP

They are heavy favourites for Wednesday night’s match, but Real will not need any reminder of the potential banana skin that awaits against not only Hen ten Cate’s side, but in the final should they win.

In last year’s final, they were given a mighty test by Japanese J1 League champions Kashima Antlers. Zidane’s men were taken all the way by the tournament hosts, eventually overcoming them 4-2 after extra time.

It all looked to be going smoothly when Karim Benzema gave Real a ninth minute lead. But that was wiped out in eight second half minutes when Japan international Gaku Shibasaki’s brace saw Kashima take a 2-1 lead.

Ronaldo equalised on the hour but the J1 League champions held on to take the game the distance, with the Portuguese powerhouse completing his hat-trick in the extra 30 minutes to earn Real a hard-fought victory.

Jazira are already severely depleted having come into the tournament without several key players, while rumours abound star man Ali Mabkhout could miss the game. They key component of this team under Ten Cate though is work ethic, and you can be sure they will fight and scrap for everything tonight.

Zidane: “ We have a match against an opponent everyone says will be an easy match. Everyone wants to do their best because it is Real Madrid. It’s the match of the year for them, so we think it will be a challenging match.”

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Pictures and footage of Real Madrid training in UAE

Brendon Netto 12/12/2017

Real Madrid arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday as they prepare to face Al Jazira in the Club World Cup semi-finals on Wednesday.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Co had their first training session at the New York University Abu Dhabi’s stadium on Monday.

The Los Blancos players were put through their paces as they gear up to play the Arabian Gulf League champions who defeated Japan’s Urawa Reds 1-0 in the quarter-finals through an Ali Mabkhout goal.

Check out the gallery above for the best pictures from Madrid’s training session and scroll down to watch some of the footage released on the club’s official Twitter account.

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Zidane should show more faith in Asensio's versatility rather than Benzema

Andy West 11/12/2017
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Asensio

It’s high time that Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane made a decision which is only a matter of time but he has been putting off for some time: Karim Benzema should be dropped, and Marco Asensio should replace him.

Benzema has enjoyed protected species status ever since he arrived from Lyon at the behest of club president Florentino Perez in the summer of 2009.

Since that time various managers have come and gone, with Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez and now Zidane all occupying the hotseat and making their way through a plethora of big-name superstars.

Those coaches have employed different tactics and personnel, but they have all made Benzema a more or less unquestioned member of their starting eleven, with the French forward playing at least 27 league games every season since he joined.

And of course, Benzema has displayed some outstanding qualities during his eight years at the Bernabeu, combining 185 goals with an excellent ability to link play between midfield and attack, bringing his team-mates into the game with intelligence and a wonderfully deft touch.

Now, though, he is rapidly approaching his 30th birthday (next week) and time is starting to run out on his career.

Quite simply, he is not as good as he used to be, and he hasn’t been for quite some time.

Last season was Benzema’s worst goalscoring season in Madrid since his first, managing just 19 goals in 48 appearances in all competitions. And the current campaign has been even worse, with five goals in 17 outings.

Past his best? Benzema.

Despite that deterioration, Zidane has persisted with Benzema for his team’s most important games, with Alvaro Morata repeatedly left on the bench last season despite significantly outscoring his rival and eventually being forced to leave, for the second time, to join Chelsea.

It’s easy to say in retrospect, but Madrid sold the wrong striker. Would you rather have a 24-year-old who is getting better with each passing season, or a 29-year-old whose best days are behind him?

The answer is obvious, but Zidane and Perez decided, for whatever reasons, to retain faith with the fading Benzema when they should have installed Morata as first-choice, and now the foolishness of that decision is being made plain.

Morata is gone, but this season Benzema is facing a fresh challenge in the form of Marco Asensio, whose almost unlimited potential was again on fully display as he produced a brilliant display – while Benzema treaded water – in the 5-0 thrashing of Sevilla on Saturday.

The future for Real: Asensio.

Whatever performance metric you wish to use, Asensio is outperforming Benzema this season. He has scored more goals, registered more assists, created more chances, completed a higher percentage of passes, and had more touches of the ball.

At the age of 21, Asensio is clearly Madrid’s future, with everything it takes to become a key player for Los Blancos for the next decade.

But he shouldn’t just be the future: he should be the present, because he is already providing more to Madrid than Benzema, who quite clearly isn’t doing enough to justify an automatic starting place for the reigning Spanish and European champions.

It might be objected that Asensio couldn’t directly replace Benzema because the Frenchman is a centre forward whereas the young pretender has made most of his appearances to date as a winger.

But one of Asensio’s strengths is his versatility, with ability to influence play from a central position showcased against Sevilla on Saturday, when he cut inside to deliver a perfect pass into the stride of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Portuguese star’s second goal.

Indeed, Ronaldo’s evolution from a box-to-box marauder into a penalty box predator has changed the kind of player needed to accompany him. As long as Madrid have Ronaldo, which we can assume will be at least another couple of years, they need a facilitator rather than a finisher, and Asensio can certainly fill that role perfectly.

By overlooking Asensio and retaining faith in Benzema, Zidane is only delaying the inevitable and harming his team in the process.

The Frenchman still has a role to play at Madrid from the bench or starting lesser games, but he is increasingly being eclipsed by Asensio. Rather than fighting that process, Zidane should embrace it – starting with the Clasico against Barcelona in a couple of weeks.

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