Real Madrid start this weekend 16 points behind great rivals and La Liga leaders Barcelona and face a tricky test against high-flying Villarreal on Saturday at the Bernabeu.
Here, we look at three key talking points ahead of the clash in the Spanish capital.
IS THE BERNABEU STILL WITH ZIDANE?
Throughout Real Madrid’s troubled season, the club’s fans have on the whole stuck with boss Zinedine Zidane, whose iconic playing career at the Bernabeu and hugely impressive first 18 months as manager put an unusual amount of credit in the bank.
But now that credit is running out, and Zidane’s notable tetchiness under intense questioning from the media on Friday suggested that the tide is turning. And if the mood of the media reflects the mood of the fans, the Frenchman is in more than a little bit of trouble.
Although it’s not yet being suggested that Zidane is on the verge of being fired, another poor performance and dropped points today would leave him in an extremely vulnerable position. The opening stages will be crucial in determining the mood – an early goal would be welcome reassurance that redemption is possible, but a slow start could get nerves jangling…and see Zidane pushed further towards the precipice.
MIDFIELD MATTERS FOR MADRID
There are problems throughout the Madrid team, with no player scoring more than four league goals, the defence looking almost constantly vulnerable and the midfield failing to adequately connect the two ends of the pitch.
At least, though, the defence and attack more or less picks itself, with injuries ensuring that Gareth Bale will team up with Cristiano Ronaldo in attack while Raphael Varane is partnered by Nacho in the centre of defence.
In midfield, though, Zidane has a real selection dilemma because none of the established starters are playing particularly well and he has options – if he chooses to use them. Casemiro is looking clumsy, Isco’s inventive powers have waned, and even Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – previously untouchable starters for four years – are facing heavy criticism.
So does Zidane turn to Lucas Vazquez, who scored both goals in the midweek 2-2 cup draw with Numancia? Is it time to introduce Marco Asensio, the boy wonder who Zidane doesn’t seem to really trust? Or should he give more chances for Mateo Kovacic to liven things up with his energetic running?
There are plenty of possibilities, but Zidane just needs to find one which works.
DANGEROUS VILLARREAL ON THE UP?
Zidane could have certainly been handed an easier fixture on his potential crisis weekend, because Villarreal are a good team who appear to be heading in the right direction after a poor start to the season and a mid-campaign wobble a few weeks ago.
The Yellow Submarine are heading to the Bernabeu in sixth place, having put together a three-game unbeaten run in La Liga either side of Christmas, conceding just one goal in the process. Even worse for Madrid, they have become particularly solid away from home, winning three and drawing two of their last six away league games.
Although leading scorer Cedric Bakambu won’t make the trip to the capital after agreeing a mega-bucks move to China, Villarreal still possess plenty of talent especially in the home team’s problem area of midfield, where players like Pablo Fornals, Samu Castillejo, Manu Trigueros and ex-Madrid winger Denis Cheryshev are more than capable of troubling any opposition. If Villarreal play well, it could be another tough afternoon for Zidane’s men.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane believes his players have responded positively to clear-the-air talks ahead of Saturday’s La Liga clash with Villarreal.
Real reached the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey – where they will face Leganes – in midweek, but lie 16 points behind rivals Barcelona in the league.
“It’s always about looking for positives,” Zidane told a pre-match press conference in quotes reported on the club’s website.
“I’ve seen a change in the team since our chat. Now we have to reflect that on the pitch. We’re not struggling to find our play, we’re just lacking the continuity we need to get our confidence back, and we can only find that by winning games.
“Winning is the most important thing and we’ve found it hard of late, but we’ll keep going. We’re still alive in every competition and having watched the games back, I don’t agree with a lot of the criticism, but I have to accept it. There are still positive elements in this team.
“The difficult thing is to avoid reading and listening to what’s being said. That’s not at all easy in this day and age but you have to try. All that’s being said about Real Madrid at the moment is negative, but I, and many others, don’t share that view. The situation is what it is, but we must look for positives; we’re still alive in every competition. We’re not in as bad a place as people say. We need to find that positive energy among the group and keep moving forward.
“I’m not worried about the (atmosphere at) Bernabeu. We want people to come and cheer us on, which is what they’ve always done. We can’t focus all on the negative. We need our fans. Just as when we’re playing well we need to keep our feet on the ground, when we’re going through a tough spell we need them to help us out.”
Villarreal lie sixth in La Liga, just four points behind Real and Zidane added: “Our concentration will be at 100 per cent because we’re up against very good opposition, who are having a fantastic season. They have not lost many games.
“We’re going to try all we can to win the game. That’s our goal and it’s what we’re preparing for. They know how to use the ball very well and they cover a lot of ground. They’re a positive team and their results reflect that.”
Karim Benzema has resumed training following injury but will not be rushed back into action.
Villarreal coach Javi Calleja will be without suspended defender Victor Ruiz for the trip to Madrid, while the likes of Bruno, Roberto Soriano and Andres Fernandez remain sidelined through injury.
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) January 12, 2018
Luis Figo has refuted suggestions his former team-mate Zinedine Zidane is under pressure at Real Madrid and insists hard work is the only way he and the club will emerge from a testing time that sees them trail runaway leaders Barcelona in La Liga.
The Blaugrana are nine points clear of nearest challengers Atletico Madrid in second place, while Zidane’s reigning champions are stuck in fourth, a gargantuan 16 points separating them and their fierce Spanish rivals.
Los Blancos do have a game in hand on Ernesto Valverde’s rampant side, although they face a stern test when they welcome sixth-placed Villareal – just four points behind them in the table – on Saturday evening.
And despite a testing start to Real’s title defence, Figo claims his friend will not be feeling the pressure.
“To be a coach you are always under pressure, and more when you are in a club like Real Madrid,” said Figo, adding that although retaining their league title seems remote, Real and Zidane will have other targets, like the Champions League – where they face Paris Saint-Germain in a mouthwatering last 16 clash next month.
“Of course the league is more difficult because of the distance in the points between them and Barcelona, it is big. But they have another goal so they have to continue to work.”
This season has seen Los Blancos already lose three times in 17 games – Barca are unbeaten – which has been in stark contrast to a stellar 2017 which saw Madrid sweep up a record five trophies.
La Liga, the Champions League, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup – the latter hoisted in Abu Dhabi last month – have all been claimed by Madrid under Zidane’s management, but they have failed to recover from a woeful start to the domestic 2017/18 campaign.
Nevertheless, Figo – who famously switched the Camp Nou for the Santiago Bernabeu in 2000 where he played alongside France maestro Zidane for four years – claims his fellow former Galactico has done an “amazing” job in the Spanish capital.
“I think he is doing amazing, even in this last few months,” added the 45-year-old, a winner of La Liga twice each with Real and Barca.
“The club has had some negative results but that doesn’t mean he’s doing bad. I think there are always up and downs throughout the season and I hope Real Madrid continue to fight for the goals they have this season.”