Rumours have reignited over Bale’s future since he was forced to start on the bench for Real’s 2-1 Champions League win over Paris St Germain on Tuesday.
But Zidane is adamant Bale is not going anywhere and is likely to restore him to his starting line-up when Real face the potentially difficult trip to eighth-placed Eibar on Saturday.
Zidane told a press conference: “Gareth is not lacking anything. He is part of a squad full of good players. He didn’t start in either of the last 16 games (against Paris) but I haven’t got any problem with him.
“There is no problem with him being on the bench – I spoke with him and he knows what it’s about. I pick a team every three days and for me Gareth is crucial – but there are other important players as well.”
Real’s win over PSG lifted some of the pressure on Zidane, whose team languish in third place in LaLiga, 15 points behind leaders Barcelona, and will plunge back into crisis if they fail to win in Ipurua.
“I’m not here to convince anyone,” Zidane said. “I don’t want to change people’s opinions. Right now everyone is saying I’m the best, a tactician, but it’s ridiculous – if I lose to Eibar they’ll say I’m the worst.
⚽🔙 The lads are back in training at #RMCity after Tuesday night’s victory in Paris!
— Real Madrid C.F.🇺🇸🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) March 8, 2018
“It’s hard to stay at the top level throughout the course of the season. When you drop points on the teams above and a gap opens up, it’s difficult.
“But in our work day to day this is my message – that we will not give in. LaLiga is not finished. We’re going to keep fighting because anything can happen in football.”
Zidane is faced with some big decisions for the trip to Eibar, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos also pushing to return to his starting line-up after joining Bale on the bench for the midweek Champions League trip.
Isco is also in contention for return with Zidane mulling over whether he can afford to hand the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo a rest after he played a full part in the recent busy spell.
Zidane is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his side against Eibar, who successfully battled relegation this season and have gone from strength to strength, despite a recent blip which has seen them win just one of their last four games.
“We’re in for another tough game at a difficult place to go,” added Zidane. “Eibar are having a fantastic season. They’re a brave and disciplined team and I’m not surprised by their league position. They are going to make life hard for us.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
But, given Real’s Champions League progress through to the last eight has been seamless, hopes of a third consecutive European Cup crown have helped to keep the flame burning in a season which could have all too easily been over by now.
As it is, Zinedine Zidane‘s men will be happy enough to tick along domestically and try and close the gap on second-placed Atletico Madrid, with their city neighbours holding a seven-point advantage over the Whites.
On Saturday, the Spanish giants travel to eighth-placed Eibar (4pm UAE time), with the league minnows enjoying a successful campaign to date.
Here, we assess three key talking points:
LOS BLANCOS CAN AFFORD TO REST CRISTIANO AGAIN
The club legend has actually missed two of Madrid’s last four La Liga fixtures as Zinedine Zidane remains increasingly cautious over saving the 33-year-old’s legs. Ronaldo, of course, is as fit as anyone but with fine game management Real can prolong his outstanding 2018 form and indeed his career further down the track.
Ronaldo came off with just over ten minutes to go against Getafe last time out but completed maximum minutes at the Parc des Princes. Although Eibar are going very well domestically in eighth, Real can afford to make the long trip to the northern tip of Spain without their talisman – giving him much-needed rest with Atletico to come on April 8 and both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals either side.
With fixtures against Girona and Las Palmas also slated between the Eibar and Atletico games, it makes sense to use him sparingly over the next two weeks.
He’s scored 15 goals in 11 matches this year and will want to keep on playing but Real hierarchy and the club’s sports science team seemingly have more power than ever to pull rank over this argument now.
It should also provide the likes of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema with an opportunity to shine, given both are still under-increasing pressure to perform after stop-start 2018s.
MATEO KOVACIC’S COMING OF AGE AT THE RIGHT TIME
The Croat turned in arguably his best showing yet in a Real shirt in the French capital and proved to Zidane that he made the right choice to stick with the 23-year-old, even with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric back in the reckoning after injury.
The former Inter Milan talent was an energetic beat at the heart of a more rigid 4-4-2 system, dovetailing nicely with Marco Asensio, goal-scorer Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez in a Madrid side that was certainly more youthful and pacey. Kovacic’s time at the Bernabeu has been indifferent and underwhelming since joining in 2015, but he looks to be finally coming into his own and indeed the Madridistas have never lost a Champions League match in which he has played (15 wins, two draws).
Kovacic deserves to be at the fulcrum of the midfield moving forward and Tuesday night felt like a watershed moment, with his supreme pass accuracy of 95 per cent being proof that Real have other options they can trust now and don’t just need to rely on Modric and Kroos’ experience – or even playmaker Isco, who hasn’t been at his best for a while.
The platform for him is now set for a big end to the season and it’s an exciting thought for Madrid fans that his most telling contributions are still to come.
MADRID ARE UNITED BEHIND ZIDANE
The Frenchman has had to bat away criticism from all comers and all corners this term. Of course, tactically speaking and results-wise, a good chunk of it was merited due to a poor La Liga campaign.
But Zidane, away from the glare of the media spotlight, has clearly been a calming and supportive influence for his players. Today’s stars need an arm around the shoulder more so than in years gone by and the former midfield maestro has been unequivocal in his backing, which has seen Real win eight out of their past 10 matches.
It’s no surprises that Real Madrid’s social media team released behind-the-scenes dressing room celebrations after the victory over the Parisians, really going to show the unity Zidane has with his squad and personal connection – particularly with the senior members.
As he did during his playing days, he has the managerial midas touch and that shouldn’t be underestimated. You have to feel that Los Blancos are now in a good mindset to make this season more memorable than it looked like it would be at the turn of the year.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadrid) March 6, 2018
After a bruising few months, in which Real have limped out of the running for every domestic honour, they saved their best for the Parc des Princes and what defender Sergio Ramos described as the club’s “favourite tournament”.
Certainly, their emphatic 5-2 aggregate victory over PSG was as convincing as it was comfortable, and an unprecedented third straight Champions League triumph, the fourth in five years, is now within reach.
Ronaldo’s form this season has, not coincidentally, matched that of his team.
Inititally below his own high standards in La Liga, particularly at the Santiago Bernabeu, he has sustained his performances in Europe and hit a peak in recent weeks.
The Portguese’s opener in Paris means he now has 15 goals in his last nine games overall and, in the Champions League, has scored in a remarkable nine consecutive matches, equalling the record of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Zidane, meanwhile, disregarded in February, is top dog in March, lauded in Spain for his tactical acumen against Unai Emery, and strength of character for picking a bench that included Gareth Bale and Isco, as well as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, both available after injury.
But Real must now turn their revival into something more concrete.
Lose in the quarter-finals, or even the last four, and the success over PSG will quickly retreat from view, replaced by a likely third-place finish in La Liga and lack of silverware added in the equation.
Perhaps a squad that won the league title last season, and owns three Champions League triumphs, has lacked edge in the campaign’s early stages but is sharpening with a major prize in sight.
“We’ve had difficult moments in the Liga and Copa del Rey, but it’s always difficult to maintain the same level while playing every three days,” Zidane said on Tuesday.
“You can’t always win everything, but we’re winning now in the Liga and we have to look ahead to our game with Eibar on Saturday.”
Zidane: "They evaded that pressure at times, but I liked the fact that we were committed to playing in the opposition' shalf. We made life difficult for them by playing so high up”.— Real Madrid Info (@RMadridInfo) March 7, 2018
Zidane has begun treating domestic games almost like trials for Europe, rotating key players or trying other ones in unfamiliar positions.
That strategy will be tested in April, given Real host city rivals Atletico Madrid in La Liga, the weekend before their quarter-final second leg.
By then, Bale will hope to have played his way back into favour. The Welshman was left out of the starting line-up in France, just as he had been for the first leg in Madrid three weeks before.
Good win last night, had to get the job done! Looking forward now to the next round 🙌🏻 pic.twitter.com/UpkRqk7ZIt— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) March 7, 2018
Snubbed for Real’s two biggest games of the season so far, Bale would appear to have reached a crossroads in his relationship with Zidane, whose explanation afterwards was brief but revealing.
“Today it was important to have two lines of four, to defend well against their wide players,” the Frenchman said. “We did that very well.”
Fit again, and seemingly finding form, Bale faces a fight not to be deployed only in Real’s throwaway fixtures.
“For sure Bale would prefer to play more,” Zidane added. “All the players are important here, which is what I look at.
“Gareth is one of them. He did not start the home or away (games against PSG), but he will play games. He is an important player for us.”