After 294 tumultuous days in the history of Real Madrid, head coach Zinedine Zidane returns this weekend to their dugout for the visit of La Liga relegation-fodder Celta Vigo.
The Los Blancos and France icon last guided his team to a 3-1 victory against Liverpool in May’s Champions League final, before unexpectedly quitting less than a week later. An institution in turmoil, who’ve churned through both Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari in the interim, welcomed him back with grateful arms on Monday.
Madrid have little tangible to play for – unlike 18th-placed Celta – during the remaining months of a moribund 2018/19. But intrigue abounds about the 46-year-old’s galvanising power, plus any hints about what the future holds for a misfiring, but superstar-laden, squad.
Here are the talking points ahead of Saturday’s fixture (19:15 UAE KO) at Santiago Bernabeu:
DOES ZIZOU PRESENT THE CURE?
Zidane departed a club for whom he’d bequeathed a third-successive Champions League upon.
In total, the Frenchman had won nine trophies across 149 matches. From this run, 393 goals were scored and 104 wins were registered.
His 150th match in charge, however, witnesses him take the reins of a fallen third-placed giant whose visage of supremacy – as he predicted – has been vividly cracked during 10 painful months without him.
Insight into why Zidane was reappointed – and Jose Mourinho, ultimately, ignored – can be mined from an interview before May’s European showpiece.
“I may not be the best tactician, but I have other qualities,” Zidane told reporters, as cited by Marca.
“Motivation and passion are values that I have, and that is worth a lot more.”
Positivity, endeavour and feats of daring-do will be expected on Saturday against opponents that last won on February 2. Plus, have lost nine of their previous 12 fixtures.
With no game of any genuine relevance for the next six months, putting a smile back on the ashen faces of the Santiago Bernabeu hordes is vital. The preceding four fixtures there have been lost, a run that includes harrowing consecutive El Clasico reversals versus Barcelona to kill hopes in the Copa del Rey and La Liga plus Ajax’s electrifying round-of-16 dethroning that halted more than 1,000 days as European kings.
Mental and physical rehabilitation are the tasks at hand. A thumping of Celta would be a start.
WHAT CAN BE LEARNED?
Madrid’s team sheet will represent hot reading when it is produced an hour before kick-off.
Will Wales winger Gareth Bale continue to be persona non grata? Can the disobedient – and reportedly out of shape – playmaker Isco be welcomed back and will Spain midfield colleague Dani Ceballos’ withering words about the “impossible” Zidane in the wake of his exit be held against him?
And will trusted lieutenant Marcelo reclaim the left-back berth from Sergio Reguilon, or was Solari correct about this call?
Mounting injuries and an important suspension should means that the XI picks itself. This weakened status, however, guarantees that any snubs become more pronounced.
Wide men Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez remain on the treatment table, where they find emerging midfielder Marcos Llorente. Brazil anchor man Casemiro is banned after a career-first red card.
If Bale or Ceballos are ignored this time, when will they play? Especially after Zidane described the former as someone he is going to “count on” during his pre-match press conference.
Isco’s indiscretions in the build-up to the Ajax loss meant he was made unavailable for Sunday’s 4-1 win at Valladolid that represented Solari’s chaotic last stand.
He had become a trusted player under Zidane in a breakthrough 2016/17. A first top-flight start since Lopetegui’s horrific last outing on October 28 – a 5-1 chasing by champions Barca – will point to a positive future.
If it doesn’t, maybe Isco truly remains on the outer?
The system chosen will also be interesting. For more than two thirds of fixtures in his opening stint, a 4-3-3 – like Solari – was favoured.
A WORD FOR CELTA
The La Liga trap door opens ever wider for sorry Celta.
Without sidelined talisman Iago Aspas, they’ve become chronically toothless. Highly rated Uruguay prospect Maxi Gomez has one goal since December 8, while Denmark winger Pione Sisto now struggles to start.
Fran Escriba this month became the third head coach tasked with extending a seven-year sting in La Liga.
Worryingly for him, Madrid are unbeaten in their last nine matches against Celta. In this spell, they’ve averaged 3.9 goals per match.
The 53-year-old has, thus far, only been at the helm for one game. A 1-0 loss to Real Betis does not seem too disconcerting on paper.
In this home fixture, however, they were a distant second in regards to both possession (63 per cent/37 per cent) and attempts on goal (14 to seven).
Betis tactician Quique Setien also came into the fixture with boos still ringing in the ears after a one win in eight.
A Madrid miracle will be required to spoil Zidane’s special day. Celta seem utterly incapable of producing one.
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Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane has described Gareth Bale as “ready to play” and a player he is going to “count on.”
Zidane on Monday returned to Real, succeeding the sacked Santiago Solari, less than 10 months after stepping down as manager, and the first game of the Frenchman’s second spell in charge is the La Liga home clash with Celta Vigo on Saturday.
The final one of his previous stint was last season’s Champions League final against Liverpool, which saw him guide Real to the trophy for a third successive year. Bale was left out of the starting line-up for that match before coming on and scoring twice, including a spectacular overhead kick.
While Zidane’s return has been seen as casting major doubt over the player’s future, the Welshman’s agent Jonathan Barnett has told the BBC Bale is “very happy at the moment”, adding: “He wants to play all his career for Real Madrid and if it does not work out, we will talk again.
“He will talk with Mr Zidane, take it from there and then see at the end of the season.”
Zidane was quoted by Marca as saying on Friday: “I’m not going to speak about Bale’s season up to this point. There are 11 matches left to play and I’m going to count on him.
“I’m going to repeat myself a lot here, but Gareth is ready to play.”
Bale was not involved in last Sunday’s 4-1 win at Real Valladolid having ended the match before, the 4-1 Champions League last-16 second-leg loss to Ajax, with an ankle injury.
The 29-year-old, who was jeered by Real fans during the 1-0 loss to Barcelona on March 2, has scored 13 goals in all competitions for the club so far this season.
Another player Zidane said he would “count on” is Isco, who on Friday was left out of Luis Enrique’s Spain squad having made only one start for Real so far in 2019.
Zidane said: “Isco just wants to play football, nothing else. We’re here just to think about football.
“I’m going to count on Isco, as well as other players, the important thing is that I make each player feel very involved.”
Zidane was also asked about Paris Saint-Germain duo Neymar and Kylian Mbappe after Real president Florentino Perez reportedly said earlier this week “I’d take them both”.
Zidane said: “I’m not going to talk about a player that isn’t mine. What I can tell you is that these two players have a lot of quality. I’m only thinking about tomorrow’s match.”
Real lie third in the La Liga table, 12 points behind leaders Barca.
Zidane’s side face a Celta Vigo outfit who are 18th in the table, a point adrift of safety, and also recently changed bosses, with Fran Escriba replacing the Miguel Cardoso.
Looking ahead to what will be the second game of his tenure, Escriba was quoted on Celta’s official website as saying: “It is true that they had a week of bad results that left them without objectives (Real suffered back-to-back defeats against Barca in the Copa del Rey semi-finals and La Liga before the Champions League elimination against Ajax), but at the level of the fans, Zidane’s arrival is exciting.
“Real Madrid have great players and will surely want to give their best with the new coach. But when you play against this team you are worried about the collective.”
Gareth Bale’s agent claims the Welshman “wants to play all his career with Real Madrid” even after the return of manager Zinedine Zidane, whose first spell in charge of the club often saw Bale dropped from the first-choice XI.
The Madrid winger has endured a frustrating season as injuries have yet again curtailed his involvement and team-mates have begun calling him out publicly for not being a more integral member of the squad.
All of this has led to speculation that Bale will finally leave the club this summer, but agent Jonathan Barnett says his client has no intention of doing so – though he admitted Zidane and the club could decide the player’s future lies elsewhere.
“He wants to play all his career for Real Madrid and if it does not work out, we will talk again,” Barnett said on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast.
“He will talk with Mr [Zinedine] Zidane, take it from there and then see at the end of the season.”
Barnett alluded to Bale’s rumoured supposed strained relationship with Zidane, but also claimed that if the returning manager uses the player in the right way, the 29-year-old could be “right up there with Cristiano Ronaldo“.
“Gareth wanted to play one way and Zidane wanted to play another. That was the cause of it and over a period of time it got worse,” Barnett explained.
“If you let Gareth play the way he wants to play, having a run of games in a row not in and out, he can be right up there with Cristiano Ronaldo. He still has a great talent.
“Gareth is very strong. He is a very strong-willed person and does not care what the press say. The jeering [from fans] is not something that bothers him, he does not understand what he has to do.
“Look at his record, what he has won and how he has played. In years to come, these people who are booing him, their children will be looking at the goals he scored and will be saying, ‘what a wonderful player’.”
The agent also hit back at the accusations that have come from Bale’s Madrid team-mates, as well as the media coverage of the winger in general, reserving some criticism for the British press in specific for not backing a British player succeeding abroad.
“Bale is a very quiet man,” Barnett said. “He has been accused of some terrible crimes like not wanting to stay out until 1am. That is terrible and every paper said that was disgusting. Can you imagine the reaction of the papers here if they saw an English player out at 1am?”
“He loves to be fit, he has a regime and he sticks to it. He is the perfect pro. He is very friendly with everyone, they know what he does and playing golf on a day off is not a crime. If anybody from the club wants to play he is available. He is fine, loves life in Madrid and has always been happy. It is very unfair of the press.
“I assure you Gareth does not read the papers about himself. The press are wrong to behave like that, it incites the fans.
“I also have a big gripe with the British press in that he is one of, if not the best, export that has ever left Britain to play abroad, one of the best players Britain has ever produced and, unbelievably, even the newspapers in England don’t stop knocking him.