La Liga‘s weekend action comes to a close with a local derby for Real Madrid, with Los Blancos making the short trip to Leganes for a game which has the look of another banana skin for Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Leganes are in fine form while the visiting team are still finding their feet under the French coach, whose selection decisions are sure to raise a few eyebrows, whatever they are. Let’s look ahead to the action with the key talking points.
Another ‘Leganazo’ for Zidane?
Recently returned Real boss Zidane does not have fond memories of taking on Leganes, who handed the Frenchman one of his most humiliating defeats during his last stint in the Bernabeu hotseat with a 2-1 exit from the Copa del Rey in January 2018.
Although he has never said so publicly, many people believe that night – which quickly became nicknamed as the ‘Leganazo’ by the Spanish media – was the first time that Zidane set his mind upon leaving the club at the end of the season after deciding he could take the team no further, something he duly did despite finishing the campaign with his third consecutive Champions League title.
LEGANAZO!— Andy West (@andywest01) January 24, 2018
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Gaining revenge over the Pepineros on this occasion will not be straightforward at all, because Leganes are in excellent form. They have collected seven points from their last three games to ease relegation fears, and even open up an outside chance of challenging for a European place.
The hosts are particularly dangerous in their small but atmospheric Butarque stadium, only losing twice at home in La Liga this season and already claiming the scalp of Barcelona. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team are a tough and uncompromising physical outfit who will certainly not roll over, and Zidane’s men will need to roll up their sleeves and work hard if they want to avoid another embarrassment at the hands of their tiny crosstown rivals.
Real condemned to the graveyard shift
Perhaps the biggest indication yet of just how poor this season has been for Real Madrid is not the number of points they have, or the fact that they are already out of both cup competitions, or even that they are on their third manager of the campaign. Perhaps, rather, it is the timing of this trip to Leganes: 21:00 (GST: 23:00) on a Monday.
This is the graveyard shift of Spanish football, a kick-off time which has proved to be so unpopular with supporters that a range of passionate protests across the country have led to the fixture slot being abandoned next season.
But with most of us reflecting upon the league action of the weekend gone by and starting to look forward to the resumption of the Champions League in the coming days, Real’s fall from grace is reflected in their ‘slap in the face’ of being scheduled to play in the Monday night slot usually the sole preserve of lesser lights.
In that unusual scenario, there is a danger that Real’s superstars will struggle to rise to the unusual occasion of a Monday contest, and Zidane will have to ensure the motivation of his players matches that of their opponents, who will certainly not lack any impetus in their desire to claim a famous scalp.
Future ruling the present
A notable aspect of Zidane’s first few games back in charge has been his willingness to rotate through his squad, fuelling all sorts of speculation about potential changes to the squad during what is expected to be an extremely busy summer.
Practically every question faced by Zidane during his pre-game press conference on Sunday focused upon his plans for the future, with the potential sale of players such as Toni Kroos, Isco, Gareth Bale and Marcos Llorente overwhelming any interest in the fact that a game is actually taking place.
It’s a situation that Zidane has become accustomed to since his return to the club, with his every utterance scrutinised and speculated upon in an attempt to read through the lines and conclude that his bland statement ‘I like player X’ really means ‘I want to sell player X’.
Zidane has a big squad so a few players will naturally have to miss out, and whoever doesn’t make the starting XI will find themselves at the centre of ‘shock departure’ stories in a weird scenario whereby the future is decisively ruling the present.
One change on Monday night could be the return of Dani Carvajal following six weeks out through injury, while Toni Kroos could be forced out through illness … or does that actually mean Zidane is preparing to sell the German midfielder? We will find out in the summer, but the speculation will continue unabated until then.
Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro has backed Gareth Bale to handle the growing uncertainty over his future.
Bale has been targeted by the club’s fans and made a scapegoat for a disappointing season at the Bernabeu.
Madrid are reportedly ready to offload him for £113million during a summer clear-out but Casemiro believes Bale will ignore the speculation and criticism.
He told the club’s official site: “He’s an experienced player who can deal with anything. Eventually, you get used to the pressure and you have to be able to cope with it if you’re at the biggest club in the world.
“When they jeer our team-mate, they’re jeering all of us because we think as a group and as a squad.
“It affects that player, but it affects all of us too. Perhaps he’s not had his best season, but this club demands the best and we can’t forget he’s brought us many titles and scored lots of goals.”
Wales forward Bale has scored 14 goals in 27 starts in all competitions this season despite suffering adductor, ankle and calf injuries.
His absences have not helped Madrid, who were also dumped out of the Champions League in the second round by Ajax last month.
They sit third in La Liga but Casemiro has demanded a big finish.
“We’ve still got seven games to go and we have to do a good job because this club always demands the best and we’re obliged to give it our all,” said the Brazil international.
“We know La Liga is very tough but we’ve got seven games to play well and restore some pride to this shirt. If Barcelona win it we’ll congratulate them but we’re focused on giving it all we’ve got.
“It’s huge motivation and was a dream for me to leave home and come to Real Madrid.
“Training here every day is a dream come true and winning all the trophies I can with this club is another lifelong goal.
“But this club always wants to win, that’s what it’s shown me and I always want to be the best I can be to help my team-mates and the club itself.”
Leganes are 12th in the table, 10 points above the bottom three.
“We are the one who need to motivate the fans. We are confident that our fans will not get tired of supporting us. We need them to end as high as possible,” midfielder Alexander Szymanowski told the club’s website.
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Midfielder Toni Kroos has publicly blasted media reports that he wants out at Real Madrid.
Kroos, 29, has scored 13 times in 228 appearances and lifted 11 major pieces of silverware since a July 2014 transfer from Bayern Munich. This impact, however, has not dampened talk of a summer exit ahead of a predicted extensive rebuild.
Leading Spanish sports daily AS stated on Friday that the Germany international is considering a new challenge, leading to Los Blancos targeting Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba as replacements.
But Kroos, while quoting the article on his verified Twitter account, labelled the article as: “Absolutely false information!”.
Madrid currently sit 13 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona, in third. Their failure to compete domestically and to lift the Champions League for a fourth-consecutive season, plus the return of head coach Zinedine Zidane, has led to rampant rumour about imminent incomings and outgoings.
Kroos has made 38 run-outs for Madrid this term, but has regularly failed to be at his imperious best.