MADRID, Spain, Feb 17 – Gareth Bale will make his return from a three-month injury layoff when Real Madrid host Espanyol on Saturday, coach Zinedine Zidane confirmed on Friday.
However, Zidane has handed a weekend off to a host of other key men as Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navas were not included in the Frenchman’s 19-man squad.
Bale hasn’t featured since suffering ankle ligament damage in November and is expected to be eased back into action as a second-half substitute.
“Bale is with us. He will be in the squad and the idea is that he has minutes,” Zidane said on Friday.
“He is an important player. He has quality, pace, we know the damage he can do to the opponents.
“We are happy and he is even more so to get back playing. He is desperate to return.”
Madrid can move four points clear of Barcelona with a game in hand at the top of La Liga should they record a 10th consecutive victory over Espanyol.
However, after the demands of an intense 3-1 Champions League last 16 first leg win over Napoli in midweek and a La Liga trip to Valencia to come on Wednesday, Zidane insisted he didn’t want to take any risks with the fitness of Navas, Ramos, Modric or Benzema.
“We have two or three players with niggles. Not significant injuries, but niggles.”
Navas’s absence means Zidane’s son Luca is included in the squad as the third choice goalkeeper.
Zidane has already handed a first-team debut to his eldest son Enzo this season.
However, Kiko Casilla will start in goal, whilst Zidane confirmed that Alvaro Morata will finally get his chance to start in place of Benzema up front.
Spanish international Morata has been linked with a move away from the Bernabeu come the end of the season after becoming frustrated at his lack of action since rejoining the European champions from Juventus in June.
“I don’t want him to go. Alvaro is at home here,” added Zidane.
“He has had minutes, although fewer than Karim. Tomorrow he will start and I know that it is not the last game that he will start.”