Real Madrid run-in assumes added importance as summer overhaul looms

When Real Madrid faces Huesca, Zinedine Zidane's picks will offer another clue as to his thinking. His opening game a fortnight ago became a reunion for the old guard as Keylor Navas, Isco and Marcelo were all recalled, and delivered.

Nine months after resigning, Zinedine Zidane returned to Real Madrid.   -  REUTERS

Real Madrid is out of the Champions League and out of the running in La Liga but it might have more to play for than Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in its final 10 games of the season.

Atletico's defeat to Athletic Bilbao before the international break means Barca sits 10 points clear in the league, its cushion allowing it almost complete focus on Europe, where it faces Manchester United in the quarterfinals next month.

Most alive then amongst the table's top three is perhaps the sense of renewal at Real, where Zinedine Zidane's reappointment has been quickly followed by reports of a summer overhaul and €500 million spending spree.

Zidane has insisted his current squad should not feel on trial in these final two months but the speculation will not have been lost on his players, whose futures look increasingly under scrutiny.

Potential targets Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe were the latest trio on the frontpage of L'Equipe on Thursday but Neymar, Sadio Mane, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Matthijs de Ligt have all been mentioned too.

“We will change things, for sure, for the years to come. We will have time to talk with the president and with the club about what we can do,” Zidane said at his unveiling earlier this month.

Madrid faces Huesca on Sunday when Zidane's picks will offer another clue as to his thinking. His opening game against Celta Vigo a fortnight ago became something of a reunion for the old guard as Keylor Navas, Isco and Marcelo were all recalled, and delivered.

Even Gareth Bale, whose relationship with Zidane was almost non-existent last season, started, and scored, to suggest his departure may not yet be a foregone conclusion.

A strong finish, and pipping Atletico to second place, would preserve the feel-good factor but a surge to make Barcelona nervous seems unlikely.

Barca is not only streets ahead on points but performances too, unbeaten in the league since November and with 12 goals in its last four matches, three of them against Sevilla, Real Madrid and Real Betis.

Lionel Messi hitting his sparkling best has been key, with his freshness for the Champions League now a priority.

“Having Leo on your team makes you feel like you can face anything,” said Gerard Pique after the win over Lyon two weeks ago.

Messi missed Argentina's win over Morocco on Tuesday with a groin strain but was back in training with Barca on Wednesday while Luis Suarez also played a limited part in the session, having sprained his ankle before the ineternational break.

Ernesto Valverde will want to be sure of the pair's fitness before fielding them against Espanyol on Saturday, particularly while Ousmane Dembele has a hamstring problem and Philippe Coutinho continues to disappoint.

Atletico still has Barcelona to play at the Camp Nou next month but its focus is less on the chase than the recovery, after consecutive defeats to Juventus in the Champions League and then Bilbao saw its season unravel in in five days.

Confirmation that Lucas Hernandez will join Bayern Munich in the summer has only deepened the deflation, with Diego Simeone now tasked with lifting morale and preventing an exodus of other marquee players, including Antoine Griezmann, in the summer.

“We have to keep fighting,” Simeone said. “Now is a time to look at ourselves and to improve.”

Atletico plays away to Alaves on Saturday, which is engaged in what appears to be a four-way fight for La Liga's last Champions Leaue spot.

The position is Getafe's to lose but beneath Alaves in fifth, and gathering momentum, are Sevilla and Valencia. They play each other on Sunday.

 

Fixtures

Friday: Girona vs Athletic Bilbao

Saturday: Getafe vs Leganes, Barcelona vs Espanyol, Celta Vigo vs Villarreal, Alaves vs Atletico Madrid

Sunday: Levante vs Eibar, Rayo Vallecano vs Real Betis, Sevilla vs Valencia, Real Valladolid vs Real Sociedad, Real Madrid vs Huesca

 

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