MADRID, Spain, Jan 26 – A Real Madrid slip-up in Valencia led to Zinedine Zidane being appointed coach, but another setback for the reigning Spanish and European champions at Mestalla this weekend would leave the Frenchman hanging onto his job.
Zidane’s promotion to the role of coach dates back to January 2016, a day after Real had twice squandered the lead in a 2-2 draw at Valencia, costing Rafa Benitez his job.
Benitez was ruthlessly dispensed with at the first opportunity just six months after his appointment, but Zidane is still in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu despite a dreadful recent run culminating in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey quarter-final exit at the hands of Leganes.
Zidane admitted after that game that his job is now on the line, with his team now out of the Cup as well as languishing in fourth place in La Liga, 19 points behind leaders Barcelona.
However, the aura around Zidane — whose first two years were soaked in success — is such that he looks set to at least be given the upcoming Champions League last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain to prove he can still turn things around.
“If at the end of the year we win the Champions League it will be an incredible year,” Cristiano Ronaldo — whose own decline has been a source of huge concern — told Chinese football app Dongqiudi.
“This season we didn’t start well in the league. We are disappointed, we are not happy but we have to work towards the Champions League, the most important trophy.”
Rather more focus on the league may be wise, though — Real are as close to the relegation zone in terms of points as they are to Barcelona.
Indeed they are five points behind third-placed Valencia, albeit with a game in hand, so can ill afford to lose on Saturday, especially with Villarreal and Sevilla coming up behind.
“We are playing against one of the best teams in the world, even if they seem to be not doing great,” said Valencia skipper Dani Parejo, who came through the Real youth system.
“We are above them and we are playing at home, but I think Madrid are the favourites,” added Parejo, whose side did make it through to the Copa del Rey semi-finals in midweek.
– Atletico floundering too –
The spotlight on Real has taken the focus away from Atletico Madrid, but Diego Simeone’s side are underperforming too and were also sent packing from the Copa del Rey, losing at Sevilla on Tuesday.
“The responsibility is absolutely mine. Now we need to improve, and we have four months left,” said Simeone, whose team host struggling Las Palmas on Sunday.
Meanwhile, French defender Aymeric Laporte was named in Athletic Bilbao’s squad to face Basque neighbours Eibar on Friday.
Manchester City are reportedly ready to pay the 23-year-old’s 65 million-euro (£57 million, $81 million) release clause with the transfer deadline looming.
But Athletic coach Cuco Ziganda said: “I am counting on Laporte. He has told me he is calm and that he is training. He has not told me he is leaving.
He added: “Those who are in the best shape physically and mentally will play.”
Player to watch: Philippe Coutinho
The Brazilian will hope to make his La Liga debut for Barcelona having shaken off the thigh injury with which he arrived at the Camp Nou earlier this month.
Coutinho, who joined from Liverpool for 160 million euros, was on the bench for Thursday’s Copa del Rey quarter-final second leg against Espanyol.
Athletic Bilbao v Eibar (11pm)
Deportivo v Levante (3pm), Valencia v Real Madrid (6:15pm), Malaga v Girona (8:30pm), Villarreal v Real Sociedad (10:45pm)
Leganes v Espanyol (2pm), Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas (6:15pm), Sevilla v Getafe (8:30pm), Barcelona v Alaves (10:45)
Celta Vigo v Betis (11pm)