Real Madrid will still be without their two most expensive players Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard for Saturday's derby at home to Atletico Madrid as Zinedine Zidane's side look to cement their new-found status as La Liga title favourites. (Photo:AFP)
MADRID: Real Madrid will still be without their two most expensive players Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard for Saturday’s derby at home to Atletico Madrid as Zinedine Zidane’s side look to cement their new-found status as La Liga title favourites.
Hazard has returned to training this week for the first time since hurting his ankle against Paris St Germain on Nov. 26 but was left out of the squad for the derby after Zidane said he would take no risks with the Belgium international.
Bale has trained all week after recovering from a slight ankle injury and his absence seems to be another sign he is no longer a first-choice player for Zidane, despite the Frenchman insisting earlier that the Wales forward was in his plans.
The absence of Bale and Hazard has barely affected Real’s form, however: they are unbeaten since October and have won six of their last seven games, their only draw being in the Super Cup final against Atletico which they won on penalties.
"There are many reasons behind it but I would highlight how hard we have worked and the belief we have in what we are doing," Zidane told a news conference ahead of the derby.
"Tomorrow we have another game and we’re going to have to prove ourselves once again."
Real are top of La Liga with 46 points from 21 games, three ahead of Barcelona, while Atletico are fifth on 36 points.
Real’s resurgence is in stark contrast to Atletico’s fall from grace and Zidane gave his backing to his opposite number Diego Simeone, who has transformed the club’s fortunes but finds himself in the most difficult stage of his eight-year tenure.
"I don’t understand the criticism, I know how he is as a coach, he is one of the best," said Zidane.
"I said recently that Pep Guardiola is the best coach around and Simeone is among the best. Atletico’s recent results have not changed my opinion of him."
Atletico are without a win in their last four games in all competitions and last week the club’s CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin felt the need to show his support for Simeone after the embarrassing Copa del Rey exit to Cultural Leonesa.
Simeone thanked Zidane for his words of encouragement and praised the Frenchman for overseeing Real’s resurgence after last season’s nightmare campaign.
"It’s nice when a colleague of Zidane’s calibre says something like that and I’ll return the compliment," he said.
"He is the ideal coach for Real Madrid, he has got them back into the same state which he left them in.
"Real’s defence has grown a lot this season and it is one of their strong points but they also have a lot of options in attack. Whoever dominates the smallest details will have a very good chance of winning."