Zinedine Zidane’s honeymoon set for reality check

Galactico coach Zinedine Zidane is about to face some real tests as Real Madrid coach.

Zidane’s pretty comfortable beginning as Madrid coach continued through Saturday’s 4-2 La Liga defeat of Athletic Bilbao at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu — with two strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo, a 20-yard drive from James Rodriguez, and Toni Kroos grabbing a rare goal.

The result was not a huge surprise — Athletic have now lost their last nine visits to the Bernabeu, conceding at least three goals each time.

Madrid have won all four home games since Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez in early January, scoring 20 times and conceding just three.

On Saturday, James summed up a feeling Madrid’s players are now much happier now than they were under the distant tactician Benitez.

“I believe the change of coach has been good for me,” said the €80m Colombian. “Not just for me. [Zidane] speaks a lot with everyone. He makes you feel you can play well, and your worth is recognised.”

There is a more positive sensation around Zidane’s team, but they now have three games coming up in 10 days which could define their season.

Their next two La Liga fixtures are a tricky trip to Malaga, then Diego Simeone’s tough Atletico Madrid visit the Bernabeu — with Los Blancos really needing to win every game now to try and catch leaders Barcelona.

First, though, is Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 first leg at a Roma side that have won their last four games under returning head coach Luciano Spalletti.

On Saturday, Zidane recalled his happy memories in the competition, such as his stunning winning goal in the 2002 final, and the dramatic comeback victory by Carlo Ancelotti’s side against Atletico two seasons ago.

“We’re ready for the game against Roma,” he said.

“We’re good physically, playing well. Of course it’s a competition which brings me back many good memories — I won it as an assistant coach and a player. It has something special. We’ll fight to win it.”

Whether Madrid really are candidates to win the trophy this year is yet to be seen.

Saturday’s game against Athletic was great fun — both teams had a host of chances, with Ronaldo and company winning out in the end thanks to their greater firepower.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was also among his team’s best players, however, regularly bailing out a rocky defence which did not receive enough protection from their midfield.

Madrid have now kept just four clean sheets in their last 24 games — and just one in six under Zidane.

Besides injuries to Gareth Bale and left-back Marcelo, away form is also a worry ahead of the trip to Rome. Madrid have won just one of their last four away and that was thanks to a late piledriver from Luka Modric at Granada a week back.

Zidane’s arrival has seen them score freely at the Bernabeu, while struggle to play with nearly the same fluency elsewhere. Ronaldo has 15 goals in his last seven home games, but has not scored on the road since November.

In fact, Zidane’s record in his first six games is almost exactly identical to Benitez’s at the season’s start.

Zidane’s arrival has freed up those big-name players, including James and Ronaldo, who felt they were being constricted by Benitez’s controlling approach. They have enjoyed their first few weeks under their new boss. The real stuff is only now beginning.

Gary Neville picked up his first league win as Denis Cheryshev’s diving header gave Valencia a nail-biting 2-1 victory over struggling Espanyol.

“Relief’s probably a good word in some ways to describe what I felt. I wanted the final whistle to come as quickly as possible,” said Neville.

Last night, Luis Suarez grabbed a hat-trick — including an outrageous ‘passed penalty’ — as Barcelona beat Celta Vigo 6-1 at Camp Nou.


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