“I have full faith in my team. I am one of those people who, when I start something, I go with it to the death. I believe in what I do, and I want Isco to stay here his whole life,” Zidane said at a press conference on Friday ahead of this weekend’s home clash with Real Sociedad in La Liga.
“Isco is a very good player. It is a lie, and I am answering in order to put an end to this,” added the Frenchman of the Spanish media report which claimed he had asked Real president Florentino Perez to find a buyer for the 25-year-old at the end of this campaign.
That has led to inevitable speculation in England that Isco – who came off the bench for Gareth Bale and scored Real’s second goal in their 2-2 draw at Levante last weekend – could be bound for the Premier League.
“We have 25 players and everyone is important. Perhaps Isco won’t play every game but I am counting on him,” said Zidane.
His team are currently fourth in La Liga ahead of Saturday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu, which serves first and foremost as a rehearsal for next Wednesday’s crunch Champions League last 16, first leg at home to Paris Saint-Germain.
The reigning Spanish and European champions are no longer in the running to defend their title in La Liga, in which they have won just two of their last six games and sit 19 points behind leaders Barcelona, albeit with a game in hand.
“I don’t need any reassurance. Tomorrow (Saturday) is a very important league game, and we want to keep picking up points and get closer to the top of the table, without thinking about Wednesday when we know we have a huge game,” Zidane added.
“Consistency has been our problem this season, but over the course of a season bad things can happen. We don’t know how the season will finish but we still believe we can do very good things.”
A dress rehearsal this may be, but Real Madrid fans will wonder whether they’ll be watching a Champions League tragedy should Zinedine Zidane and Co flop against Real Sociedad.
White handkerchief sellers will have been doing a roaring trade in Madrid this week after a ‘disgusted’ Zidane watched little old Levante score a late leveller in their last La Liga outing.
While Wednesday’s visit of Paris Saint-Germain – on St Valentine’s Day no less – is the focus, Real must mend some broken hearts…
Isco facing the music
… starting with Isco, whose problem seems that he has not broken transfer records (like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale) or can play up front to replace a sub-par Karim Benzema.
Rumours persist that Zidane is intent on shipping him out this summer but the Frenchman’s leverage is slipping by the second as those five trophies in 2017 get buried by more listless performances.
Isco, while not at his best this term, is one of the few players capable of dovetailing Real’s midfield and attack and would have scored the winner off the bench against Levante if not for Giampolo Pazzini’s 89th-minute intervention.
The 25-year-old is hamstrung by the fact that Real are tactically inflexible in a 4-3-3 as three midfielders are required to do Bale and Ronaldo’s donkey work coming in off the flanks, while the Spaniard is best deployed behind the striker.
Should Isco start against La Real it may mean that Zidane is planning on benching him for the big one. But a standout performance by Isco could force his coach into a rethink, and given that his job could well depend on beating PSG, it’s no time to be stubborn.
Centre-backs against wall
While Real’s attack has clearly been disjointed, the travails of Cristiano Ronaldo et al up front have covered up the limitations of a flimsy back-line.
Captain Sergio Ramos has been in and out of the side due to injury but his presence has done little to solidify a defence that has conceded 21 goals in as many games.
There is a clear disconnect within that back four at the moment and worryingly some of the major errors are being committed by their most experienced members.
Ramos criticised Marcelo for being too ‘static’ in the draw with Levante yet the Spaniard, as well as centre-back partner Raphael Varane, have also looked a step behind the action of late and were equally culpable last weekend.
This could all be a by-product of Real’s lack of investment over the summer – another hungry and perhaps trophy-starved player to keep the old faces on their toes.
If they can’t keep out Sociedad, or at least deliver a much-improved performance, then what hope do they have against Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe?
La Real deal
That being said, La Real represent an intriguing challenge for Los Blancos. They have won just two of their last six league matches and will arrive at the Bernabeu without a revitalised Adnan Januzaj because of injury.
They do however still possess an abundance of attacking talent that should prove a worthwhile warm-up ahead of Wednesday’s fare.
In fact, Madrid have scored just four more goals than Sociedad in the league this year (45 to 41), with Barcelona and Valencia the only other teams to have found the back of the net more frequently.
Willian Jose has struck 16 times for La Real in 28 games this year and is the type of thorn-in-the-side striker that can ruffle Ramos and Varane.
Madrid may be troubled by two familiar faces as well. Asier Illarramendi, feted as Xabi Alonso’s successor for Spain once upon a time, is finally coming into his own at 27 years of age.
He struck twice in last weekend’s 5-0 demolition of Deportivo La Coruna and could well figure heavily in Spain’s World Cup campaign this summer.
Sergio Canales, another what-could-have-been talent for Real, is a possible replacement on the wing for Januzaj.
Utter the words ‘Real Madrid’ anywhere in the world and they are sure to draw a reaction – but some places love them just a little more than most.
That’s true of Krasnodar, the Russian city preparing to break records by hosting Los Blancos… in an Under-19s match.
A UEFA Youth League record 33,979 are expected to fill the Stadion Krasnodar on Wednesday night. For perspective, FK Krasnodar’s senior side draw an attendance of little more than 24,000 per game.
“We are happy with such attention. If we want our lads to play at the highest level we need these kinds of matches,” Krasnodar coach Murad Musaev told Sovetski Sport. “This is like an exam for all of us.
“Our board decided to play at the main arena if more than 5,000 tickets were sold. It was a pleasant surprise. We are happy to be seeing so many fans.”
The Real starlets, led by former Bernabeu hero Guti, and Krasnodar are beginning to reach the UEFA Youth League’s round of 16.
And while the Madrid-based teenagers are heavily favoured they best watch out for the tournament’s current top goalscorer.
Ivan Ignatyev, who has already struck twice for Krasnodar’s senior side this season, has fired 10 goals in just four games so far having qualified through the ‘domestic champions’ path.
Real however have had a tougher time so far, having to qualify from a group containing Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL – opponents that mirrored their senior side’s fixtures in the UEFA Champions League.
Just like the men, Real qualified behind Tottenham in second place, with striker Dani Gomez doing most of the damage.
The 19-year-old scored in each of the five games he played in, scoring seven times – including a hat-trick against APOEL.
Real Madrid squad to face Krasnodar: Moha, Altube, Zabarte, Victor, Lopez, De la Fuente, Alex, Miguel, Miguel Baeza, Augusto, Alberto, Cesar, Martin, Antonio, Moha M., Oscar, Dani Gomez and Pedro.