Real Madrid stars prove they're still keen to fight for under-fire Zinedine Zidane

Andy West 28/01/2018
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Real Madrid are seemingly finding their form ahead of the second half of the season.

If we discovered one thing from Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory at Valencia on Saturday, it’s that Zinedine Zidane’s players haven’t given up on him yet.

After such a disappointing season it’s inevitable that Zidane’s future is in serious doubt, and many other people with less credit in the bank would have already been fired by Florentino Perez by now.

The only way Zidane can turn things around is if his squad still believes in him and wants to play for him, and it was clear from their determined attitude at Valencia – especially when they managed to ride the storm of the home team’s pressure with the scoreline at 2-1 – that Madrid’s players are still prepared to give sweat, blood and tears for their manager.

That’s no surprise, because Zidane’s greatest asset has always been his man-management: his ability to relate to his players and make them all feel important, even when they’re not playing.

Even players who eventually had to leave – such as James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata – were never placed in a position where they felt they had to cause trouble or vent their anger, so we should only expect the Madrid squad to still be on their manager’s side.

There is still, however, a very long way to go before we can say that Zidane has secured his future, with a long run in the Champions League – perhaps even the title itself – the only thing that can save him now.

And there’s not much time for green shoots of recovery to blossom into a full-scale recovery, because the first leg of the last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain is now only a fortnight away.

Although Valencia didn’t grab the equaliser their pressure deserved, they were able to work the ball into dangerous positions far too often for Madrid’s comfort, and the visitors were only let off the hook by the lack of genuine world-class quality in Valencia’s attacking line.

If Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe had received such frequent possession in similar positions to Rodrigo, Santi Mina and Carlos Soler, it’s hard to imagine they would not have capitalised with more goals.

So Zidane doesn’t need to just keep his players onside, he also needs to get them organised into a more effective playing structure. That kind of coaching task is arguably his weakness, and he’s in a race against time to achieve it.

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Real Madrid things learned as goal-hungry Cristiano Ronaldo strikes in 4-1 win over Valencia

Andy West 27/01/2018
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Cristiano Ronaldo converted two penalties as Real Madrid battled to a 4-1 away win at Valencia in La Liga on Saturday, lifting the recent gloom over the defending Spanish and European champions.

The result leaves Madrid 16 points behind top placed Barcelona on 54, Atletico Madrid are second on 43, Valencia third on 40 with Real another two back.

Here’s what we learned from the encounter.

Think Real Madrid are finished? Think again

Real Madrid possess far too much quality for their recent poor form to continue indefinitely, and they will now desperately be hoping that this victory at Valencia serves as a launching pad for the remainder of the season.

It was by no means an outstanding performance and they were seriously flattered by the 4-1 scoreline, finding themselves under an enormous amount of pressure during the middle stages of the second half.

But the way they rolled up their sleeves and stood up to the challenge, and then produced a big finish to secure the victory in style, showed there is certainly no lack of commitment or team spirit within Zinedine Zidane’s ranks.

Retaining the La Liga title looks impossible and the Copa del Rey is gone, but that means Los Blancos can now focus all their efforts on winning their third consecutive Champions League crown, and the rapidly approaching last 16 tie with París Saint-Germain is shaping up to be something very special indeed.

Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane

Penalty king Ronaldo still goal hungry

Cristiano Ronaldo is La Liga’s new penalty king, with his two conversions against Valencia taking him to a grand total of 72 spot-kick strikes in the league, one more than another Los Blancos legend Hugo Sanchez.

That Ronaldo is an excellent penalty taker is not a new piece of information, and it’s also no shock to learn that the Portuguese ace was by far the biggest goal threat throughout the game, with his appetite for scoring clearly undiminished.

He really should have scored at least a hat-trick, wasting some clear opportunities in open play, and his overall performance certainly left plenty to be desired.

But it’s abundantly clear that Ronaldo remains the undoubted focal point of his team’s attack, and even though he missed a few chances he was still always in the right place to find them. Ronaldo’s longer term future may be in doubt, but for now there’s no mistaking his central place in the team’s fortunes.

Ronaldo's brace of penalties led Madrid to victory.

Ronaldo’s brace of penalties led Madrid to victory.

Valencia bubble bursting fast

It’s not long since Valencia were starting to be considered as serious title contenders after a blistering start to the season, but now they can only hope the way they ran out of steam against Madrid doesn’t serve as a metaphor for their season.

Marcelino’s team played with huge amounts of commitment and endeavour, and no lack of quality in the centre of the pitch where Dani Parejo showed he is one of the game’s most technically accomplished performers.

But they suffered from a lack of real quality at both ends of the pitch, with strikers Rodrigo and Santi Mina offering plenty of hustle and bustle but a lack of refinement or subtlety, while Martin Montoya made two huge defensive errors to gift Madrid two penalties.

A team with such limitations can only go so far, and the fact that Los Che have lost four of their last seven league games suggests they face a big battle with Sevilla and Villarreal to keep hold of a place in the top four between now and the end of the season.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the master of penalties - Seven Deadly Stats from Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Valencia

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Ronaldo's brace of penalties led Madrid to victory.

Real Madrid headed into their clash against Valencia in full crisis mode. There was talk that a loss could result in Zinedine Zidane finally getting the sack, and the future of some of their star players was up in the air as well.

An away trip to Valencia was hardly the ideal fixture in that context, but Cristiano Ronaldo and company made light of their recent struggles with an impressive 4-1 win at the Mestalla Stadium.

Here are seven deadly stats from Madrid’s convincing win.

CRISTIANO RONALDO, PENALTY SPECIALIST

Ronaldo’s proficiency from the penalty spot sometimes makes him the butt of jokes, with detractors believing he gets cheap goals to pad his stats.

While his brace from the spot won’t have settled that debate on Saturday – and probably never will – his mastery of the penalty kick is worth applauding. Plenty of talented attackers would envy Ronaldo’s penalty record.

WHO NEEDS RONALDO, ANYWAY?

With his brace, Ronaldo continued an astonishing scoring record for Real Madrid.

Even through struggles and dips in form, the Portuguese star has been a remarkable model of consistency, never having a bad season in Madrid colours.

FINDING HIS FORM

It was a second brace in a row in the league, after last week’s showing against Deportivo La Coruña, and Ronaldo seems to finally be rounding into form in La Liga.

The timing couldn’t be better, with critics sharpening their knives this season and speculation gathering steam (if only ever so slowly) that Madrid are ready to move on from their talisman.

TIME TO SELL BALE?

It’s hard to believe given his injury-plagued, much-criticised season, but Gareth Bale has quietly been one of Madrid’s best players in this campaign.

There’s no doubt that the time he misses due to his fitness issues is a source of frustration for fans and the Madrid management – though it’s probably even more so for Bale himself. When he does play, however, he contributes in a way that makes it unthinkable that he would be a top candidate to be sold this summer.

Along with leading the team in assists this season, he’s also the second-leading scorer behind Ronaldo.

MAYBE HE SHOULD BE STARTING MORE OFTEN…

Valencia came back into the game thanks to a goal from Santi Mina, who gave the home side hope of a comeback.

The 22-year-old has made a total of 21 league appearances this season, but only eight of those have been from the start. But his eight league goals are enough to leave him in among a host of players tied for 10th in the La Liga scoring charts, one of whom is Ronaldo. He’s second only to Simone Zaza in Valencia’s league goals tally this season.

Message to Marcelino: start him more often.

ENDING THE ROAD RUT

There was plenty of reason to doubt Real Madrid going into this game, given their recent away record.

So when Mina scored to put Valencia back in the game, Madrid could have been forgiven for getting nervous. It showed, with the home side suddenly first to every ball, constantly snapping at the heels of Madrid’s players, and controlling the game.

Not for long, though, as Marcelo scored a trademark goal to put the game out of reach, and then Toni Kroos added gloss to the scoreline.

A LONG-AWAITED WIN

Valencia’s brief comeback must have been all the more nerve-wracking for Madrid given their record at this stadium. The Mestalla has been a bogey ground in recent times, with Valencia using their home support to give Los Blancos a tough ride even in the midst of some poor seasons.

Thanks to their late flourish, Madrid can put recent memories of this stadium behind them, as they sent an emphatic message to a direct rival in the race for a top-three finish.

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