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La Liga: Real Madrid wins in Zidane’s return, Atletico stunned

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Zinedine Zidane returned to Real Madrid, and it was like he never left.

The Frenchman made sweeping changes in his first starting lineup, bringing Keylor Navas, Gareth Bale, Isco, and Marcelo all back into the 11 as Madrid stormed to a 2-0 win over Celta Vigo at the Bernabeu.

All four players had seen diminished playing time under Santiago Solari, blamed by fans and media for the team struggles, but Zidane gave them a reprieve, and it bore immediate fruit. Isco scored the opener in the 62nd minute to put Madrid up for good, and Bale put the game away 15 minutes later. The defense, meanwhile, held Celta Vigo to just one shot on target as they fall for the fifth time in their last six matches.

The win pulled third-placed Madrid within two points of cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid in second, an important result that preceded a shocking 2-0 loss by Atletico as they fell on the road at Athletic Bilbao. The game was scoreless – right in Atletico’s wheelhouse – until the 73rd minute when an awkward Atleti turnover in their own defensive third led to an Inaki Williams tap-in to break the deadlock. Kenan Kodro finished it off in the 85th minute and Atleti is now looking over its shoulder at Real Madrid just two back.

Meanwhile, a few places back, Alaves pulled within one point of a Champions League place as they topped Huesca 3-1 behind a brace from Jonathan Calleri. His opener in the 11th minute was cancelled out minutes later by Ezequiel Avila to make it 1-1, and the scoreline stayed there until the 80th minute. Substitute striker John Guidetti put Alaves up with 10 to go, and then Calleri bagged his brace six minutes later to put the game away.

Finally, Girona jumped Leganes in the table with a 2-0 win thanks to a double by Portu, continuing the club’s rise up the table. They had fallen as far as 16th, but a five-game stretch with three wins and a draw has brought them back up to 13th and within two points of a top-half spot.

Zidane: I can count on Bale, Isco at Real Madrid

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Zinedine Zidane says he’s not going to talk about other team’s players, except that he’s also going to talk about them… vaguely.

The recently rehired Real Madrid boss (say that five times fast) was asked about the possibility of his side splashing mega cash to bring Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to the Bernabeu on the heels of this three-manager disappointment of a season.

[ MORE: Analyzing the UCL draw ]

“I’m not going to talk about a player that isn’t mine,” Zidane explained, via Marca.com. “What I can tell you is that those two players have a lot of quality.”

He went on to say that one of those players, and he wouldn’t name names, was young and French and an absolute monster. We’re kidding, but you get the joke.

Zidane named out-of-favor Isco and Marcelo back in his squad, as Real hopes to stop the rot and build for next season because, well, he cannot have any other aims.

Real is 15 points back of Barcelona with neither an El Clasico nor a Madrid Derby on his fixture list. It’s also 10 points clear of fifth place, so qualifying for Europe isn’t a worry, and Real has already been dismissed from the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League.

Yes, it’s all very, very weird.

Zidane says he’s going to “count on” Isco and Gareth Bale, who haven’t had their usual seasons for Los Blancos, saying specifically of the Welshman:

“I’m not going to speak about Bale’s season up to this point. There are 11 matches left to play and I’m going to count on him. I’m going to repeat myself a lot here, but Gareth is ready to play.”

Could Bale have a future at Real Madrid?

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It’s hardly a secret that Zinedine Zidane and Gareth Bale didn’t exactly see eye to eye by the end of last season, shortly before Zidane’s departure.

Now with Zidane back, questions are being asked, could Bale be allowed to leave, or offered to clubs at a cut-rate fee? If Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett is correct, the Welshman isn’t going anywhere.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In an interview with the BBC, Barnett said that despite some of the optics, Bale is actually happy in Madrid. He also said that Bale wants to stay in Madrid, despite the return of Zidane earlier this week to managing the side.

“Yes, why not?,” Barnett told the BBC. “He wants to play all his career for Real Madrid and if it does not work out, we will talk again. He will talk with Mr Zidane, take it from there and then see at the end of the season.”

Zidane’s frustrations with Bale began due to Bale’s extensive injuries, especially when he tried to rush back from them too soon, according to Spanish publication AS. After limping off with another calf injury in April 2016, Bale didn’t play again until the UEFA Champions League final that year, nearly two months later.

Bale was further marginalized as Zidane went away from the 4-3-3 with Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in favor of a more balanced 4-4-2, with left Bale on the bench. But Bale was still struggling with injuries and even when starting, he wasn’t able to live up to expectations in terms of goals scored or assists created.

In a separate report on the BBC from Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy offered to sign Bale on a one-year loan move, but having not offered to take enough of Bale’s massive salary on-board, the offer never officially made its way to Real Madrid. In addition, with Zidane (and Ronaldo) gone, Bale had a chance to prove himself and the doubters wrong.

Unfortunately for him, it’s been another forgettable season with Los Blancos. The 29-year-old Welshman has just 10 goals in 28 games between La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, as Real Madrid looks set to miss out on a domestic or European title for the first time in many years.

If Bale is to depart Real Madrid for a fresh new start, he’ll have to take a drastic pay cut. However, he could become a regular starter for just about any Premier League team. If Bale however would rather stay at Madrid, he can enjoy earning some huge money, but he’ll continue to play a side role instead of be the main man.

Solari shares blame for Real Madrid debacle with players

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MADRID (AP) Amid speculation that his days are numbered, Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari dished out some of the blame for the team’s disastrous season to his players.

“The majority (of my players) have honored this club’s emblem, and those who haven’t have been told so personally by me,” Solari said on Saturday, four days after Madrid was humiliated by Ajax in the Champions League, following devastating defeats to Barcelona in the Spanish league and Copa del Rey.

The usually tight-lipped Solari did not name which players he thought had failed to meet his standards. But since taking over from Julen Lopetegui in late October, Solari has clearly not been pleased with either the attitude or performances of several once-important players.

Defender Marcelo has been sent to the bench, Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio are no longer starters, and Spain midfielder Francisco “Isco” Alarcon has seen several matches from the stands after being dropped from Solari’s squad.

Asked about Isco, Solari responded: “Disciplinary questions are handled internally. (But) to play you have to first be in shape and ready to play competitively.”

Rumors are rife in Spanish media that Madrid may not wait until the end of the season to fire Solari after back-to-back homes losses to Barcelona and a stunning 4-1 defeat to Ajax on Tuesday that ended Madrid’s campaign for a fourth consecutive Champions League title. Former Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, who has been without a job since being fired by Manchester United, leads the list of potential replacements.

Solari, who has a contract through 2021, said he was still committed to seeing out the remaining 12 matches of the campaign but struck a philosophical note.

“All of us here, we are just passing through,” Solari said. “And in this job that is even truer. But the most important thing for a team and a coach is the next match. It has always been an honor to serve this club.”

That next game comes on Sunday at Valladolid, with Madrid a distant third place to league leader Barcelona.

Ajax ends Real’s Champions League reign

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  • Real’s reign as 3-time champions ends at home
  • Schone scores wonder goal (video)
  • Vinicius Junior injured (MORE)
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Ajax put an end to Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League reign with a 4-1 second leg at the Bernabeu on Tuesday, sending the Dutch side into the quarterfinals with a 5-3 win over two legs.

Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Dusan Tadic, and Lasse Schone scored in the win, which reversed with ease a 2-1 first leg loss in the Netherlands.

Marco Asensio scored Real Madrid’s lone goal.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

After an early Real header off the cross bar from Raphael Varane, Ajax struck gold.

Dusan Tadic dribbled down the right before side-footing a pass to Ziyech for a shot a across goal and past Thibaut Courtois.

Neres made it 3-2 on aggregate, leveling the tie on away goals when Tadic set him up for a neatly-dinked goal.

And he nearly added another with a chip across goal that missed the upper 90.

Andre Onana stopped Lucas Vazquez’s bid to bring the tie level in the 24th.

Enter Gareth Bale. The out-of-favor Welsh star entered the game after just a half-hour, though his arrival was met by a long Vinicius dribble that cause amplification of an earlier injury.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Benzema came close to bringing the tie even at 3 when he dribbled past Ziyech to shoot across goal and wide in the 59th minute.

Ajax looked to have clinched the tie in the 63rd minute via a Tadic wonder strike, and a first replay via VAR looked like the ball had gone out of play in the build-up. A second angle, however, seemed to show it just touching the white paint, and it was ruled inconclusive.

Real got one back in the 70th minute, with substitute Marco Asensio rolling a low shot past Onana and inside the far post.

Then came Lasse Schone. What else can you say about this free kick, other than a remarkable effort accompanies a mistake from Courtois.