news 6 days ago

New challenges ahead of Zidane in return to Real Madrid

The Associated Press — By TALES AZZONI - AP Sports Writer

MADRID (AP) — The Real Madrid team that Zinedine Zidane is taking over looks nothing like the one he left behind less than a year ago.

Madrid had just won a third straight Champions League title when Zidane decided to quit at the end of last season. Cristiano Ronaldo was still on the team, and few questioned the quality of a squad that successfully mixed young talent and veteran players. Club president Florentino Perez was praised for keeping the club at the top for so long.

Now Madrid is trying to recover from one of its worst crises in recent history. Its Champions League run ended with a humiliating home loss to Ajax, which followed consecutive defeats to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and the Spanish league, both also at home. There was no blockbuster signing to replace Ronaldo, and the squad looks divided and beaten. Fans have been calling for Perez's resignation.

"We have to change things going forward," Zidane said. "But now it's not the time to talk about that. We have 11 matches left in the Spanish league, then we will see what we can do in the future."

Zidane, a former France great who also won a Champions League title with Madrid as a player, faced a similar challenge when he took over from Rafa Benitez in 2016, when the team also endured difficult times.

He had no head-coaching experience at a major club, but proved himself at the time, doing a superb job managing the squad and winning nine titles in less than three years.

Now back at the helm, Zidane will have another shot at rebuilding the club.

"I wouldn't be here if I only thought about what happened in the past," said Zidane, who will make his return on Saturday in a league match against Celta Vigo at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. "I'm ready to be in charge again."

Here are some of the new challenges Zidane will face:

UNHAPPY SQUAD

Zidane is replacing Santiago Solari, whose lineup choices were not very popular with some of the players who had been thriving under the French coach.

Among the players sidelined by Solari were veteran left back Marcelo and midfielder Francisco "Isco" Alarcon, two key pieces in Zidane's squad before he left.

Solari also took Gareth Bale out of the starting lineup, creating problems with the Wales forward.

Karim Benzema and Lucas Vazquez had a lot more chances under Solari than they did with Zidane, while Marco Asensio played more often under the French coach than with Solari.

MANAGING YOUNGSTERS

New to Zidane this time will be the presence of talented youngsters such as Vinicius Junior and Sergio Reguilon.

Vinicius Junior gained a spot in the starting lineup over Bale, and he made the most out of his chances, pleasing Solari and Madrid fans with his speed and skills.

Reguilon, a member of Madrid's youth teams, became a popular replacement to Marcelo at left back, contributing both in attack and in defense. Other youngsters who had more opportunities with Solari were right back Alvaro Odriozola and midfielder Marcos Llorente.

REPLACING RONALDO

Vinicius Junior, an 18-year-old Brazilian who arrived at the beginning of the season, showed signs he could be become a star, but he is still far from providing the attacking power that Ronaldo did.

Indeed, Vinicius Junior missed several chances in the matches against Ajax and Barcelona.

Perez decided not to make any major signings following Ronaldo's departure for Juventus, and in the end it proved costly.

Luka Modric recently said the team needed two or three players to share responsibility and take over Ronaldo's role, but those who stayed in the squad didn't step up.

"It's not time to talk about Ronaldo," Zidane said. "He is part of the club's history. That's it."

Fans want another "Galactico" signing, and only top names like Neymar or Kylian Mbappe would fully satisfy the demanding Madrid crowd. Eden Hazard and Mauro Icardi would be more likely to arrive, though, and they would already mean a much bigger boost to the team than it got in the last two transfer windows.

GOALKEEPING ROW

Also new to Zidane is Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who arrived after the World Cup and became a starter under Solari.

Zidane kept Keylor Navas in goal while he was in charge, and the goalkeeper was key for Madrid in its three winning campaigns in the Champions League. Solari had relegated Navas to Copa del Rey games, and there were talks about him wanting to leave to get more playing time.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni