Zinedine Zidane has wasted little time in making his presence felt back at Real Madrid after bringing the likes of Isco, Marcelo and Gareth Bale back in from the cold.
The Frenchman, who was re-appointed Los Blancos boss on Monday after the club parted ways with Santi Solari, is set for a rapturous welcome from the Bernabeu crowd ahead of Saturday’s clash with Celta Vigo (GST: 19:15).
With the title race now a distant memory and their run of three Champions League successes at an end, Zidane has shaken up the pack at the tail-end of a disastrous season engineered by Julen Lopetegui and then Solari.
Zidane has placed his faith in Isco and Marcelo – the pair who were frozen out by Solari – for the first line-up of his return, as well as Bale. Towards the end of Zidane’s initial reign, his relationship with the Welshman had reportedly become strained.
Marco Asensio, who has also endured a season to forget, has been awarded a spot while Keylor Navas regains his place in goal at the expense of summer signing Thibaut Courtois.
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.
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.”