Madrid — Zinedine Zidane gets a chance to keep Real Madrid's
momentum going in a home game against struggling Sporting Gijon in the Spanish
league this weekend.
After routing Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 at the Santiago
Bernabeu Stadium in Zidane's debut as head coach on Saturday, Madrid plays an
opponent that has lost seven of its last eight games, including the last four.
Sporting hasn't won a match since early December and is only
18th in the 20-team standings. It has a game in hand, but it's against
Barcelona. To make things worse, the team just found out that it will be
without defender Bernardo Espinosa for about seven months because of a knee
injury sustained last weekend.
Madrid, meanwhile, is boosted by the arrival of Zidane, who
breathed new life into the Spanish giant after it struggled under coach Rafa
Another victory under the command of the former player will
keep fans satisfied and can move the team closer to the top of the table. At
the halfway point, Madrid is third with 40 points, two less than Barcelona and
four less than Atletico Madrid.
Zidane has had a full week to train the squad and try to
reinforce his playing style, which is based on trying to retain ball possession
and avoid long ball transitions from the defense to the attack.
The only bad news for the former France great going into
Sunday's match at the Bernabeu is that captain Sergio Ramos is nursing a
lingering shoulder injury that forced him to be substituted at halftime against
Deportivo last Saturday.
Also read: Bale hat-trick gets Zidane off to dream start
Here are other things to know about the 20th round:
Atletico Madrid, which plays at 16th-place Las Palmas on
Sunday, is the hottest team in the Spanish league with eight wins in its last
nine games. Its only setback was a 1-0 loss at Malaga four rounds ago.
Diego Simeone's team continues to rely on solid defense to
stay on top. Atletico has conceded eight goals in 19 matches, and the only time
it conceded more than one goal in a game was in a 2-1 home defeat to Barcelona
in the third round. It's by far the best defense in the league — Barcelona and
Malaga come next with 15 goals each.
Atletico has scored 27 times — Real Madrid has 52 goals and
Barcelona 44 — but it's been enough to keep the wins coming. Atletico leads the
league with 14 victories, one more than Barcelona. Real Madrid and fourth-place
Villarreal each won 12 times in 19 rounds.
"We've been improving game after game," Simeone
said. "We hope to keep playing with this consistency, which is a difficult
thing to do."
After resting some players in the 2-0 win over Espanyol in
the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, coach Luis Enrique is expected to field the
team's regular starters when Barcelona hosts eighth-place Athletic Bilbao on
Enrique rested striker Neymar and defender Gerard Pique
against Espanyol, but the duo is expected to be back in the squad against
Athletic. Luis Suarez, who didn't play Wednesday because of a suspension for
insulting opponents in the first leg against the city rival, also is set to
return. Neymar and Suarez are the league's leading scorers with 15 goals each.
Lionel Messi played Wednesday and is also certain to be in
the lineup Sunday.
"His fitness is always so strong and that's essential
for us," Enrique said. "He got plenty of rest when he was out injured
and the more time he gets to play, the better."
Villarreal is in a good position to solidify its
fourth-place position when it hosts struggling Real Betis on Saturday.
While Villarreal has won six straight league games, Betis
has not won in eight matches in league and cup, six of them without a goal.
The team is also without a coach after Mel Pepe was fired
Both teams were eliminated from the Copa del Rey this week.
Betis fell to city rival Sevilla and Villarreal lost to Athletic Bilbao, the
tournament's runner-up last year.For
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