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Isco gets second chance at Madrid with Zidane back in charge

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Among the 60,000-plus spectators packed into the Santiago Bernabeu for the return of Zinedine Zidane, nobody seemed happier than Francisco “Isco” Alarcon.

Having his old coach back in charge has given Isco a second chance to salvage his career at Real Madrid- and his status as one of Spain’s top talents.

During Zidane’s nine-month hiatus from coaching, Isco went from title-winner to soccer outcast. It had gotten so bad for Isco under the recently fired Santiago Solari that he had to watch several matches from the stands.

But with Zidane back in charge, so was Isco.

The playmaker scored the opening goal of the 2-0 win over Celta Vigo on Saturday to end a horrendous run of four consecutive home losses for Madrid that led to Solari’s exit.

Isco was among several members of Zidane’s “old guard” to recover their spots in the starting 11 after seeing their playing time diminish during Solari’s 4 1-2 months in charge. Others included Marcelo and Gareth Bale, who combined for Bale to score Madrid’s second goal, and Marco Asensio, who set up Isco’s goal, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who had become a backup to Thibaut Courtois.

“Nobody is going to take away what they have done here,” Zidane said about his veteran players. “Keylor is very good, and what can I say that you don’t already know about Marcelo, Isco and Bale? They looked good to me, Isco got a goal. I will count on them all because they have shown positive things.”

But none of that group of players had been treated as coldly as Isco had by Solari, who didn’t start him once in the 17 Spanish league matches that he coached.

Having helped Madrid win the Champions League four of the last five years, the 26-year-old Isco was until recently considered the future midfield star of the Spanish national team. But his absence from Madrid led to Spain coach Luis Enrique dropping him from his squad for the team’s first two European Championship qualifiers later this month.

Being rescued from obscurity does not mean that Isco has definitely reclaimed an important role on Zidane’s team, however. Zidane used to play Isco often enough, but he never included him in his core group of players who always started if healthy.

And almost nobody’s place is safe at Madrid following a disastrous season that included a humbling round-of-16 exit from the Champions League to Ajax and a record of three losses and a draw in their four meetings with fierce rival Barcelona. Madrid president Florentino Perez will want to overhaul his team this summer, meaning some of its current members will be sold.

Isco, and the rest of his teammates, have 10 league games left to convince Zidane and his boss that they deserve to be part of next season’s rebuilding effort. They appear to have nothing else to play for, trailing Barcelona by 12 points in the Spanish league.

“There will be changes, but I will not be looking at these games if everyone does well … to see if they stay or leave,” Zidane said.

Isco, if he wants to stay, can only hope that Zidane’s words do not mean the club has already made its decision on his future.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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.”

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.

La Liga: Dembele rescues Barcelona again; Real Madrid drop points

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: What did we learn today in the Premier League? ]

Real Sociedad 1-2 Barcelona

Ousmane Dembele has a lot to live up to ($120 million, to be more specific), but the 21-year-old Frenchman is beginning to repay Barcelona for the massive transfer fee they paid to acquire his services last summer. Three times this season already, including Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sociedad, Dembele has scored the game-winning goal to snatch victory from the jaws of a draw. First, he did it in the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla, before scoring the only goal in Barca’s victory over Real Valladolid last month.

Barca fell behind after Aritz Elustondo’s opener in the 12th minute, an advantage they maintained until after the hour mark. Luis struck in the 63rd, though, and Dembele completed the comeback three minutes later (his fourth goal of the season – all competitions). The victory makes Barca a perfect four-for-four to start the season, and they now lead the rest of the league by at least two points, thanks to results elsewhere on Saturday.

Atletico Bilbao 1-1 Real Madrid

Speaking of results affecting the top of the table, Real Madrid dropped points for the first time this season as they, too, had to overcome a halftime deficit. Iker Muniain put Bilbao ahead in the 32nd minute, but the lead would last only 32 minutes more. Isco got on the end of Gareth Bale‘s cross to the top of the six-yard box and headed home from close range (his first goal of the season).

Elsewhere in La Liga

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Eibar
Valencia 0-0 Real Betis

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Leganes vs. Villarreal — 6 a.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Levante — 10:15 a.m. ET
Real Valladolid vs. Alaves — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sevilla vs. Getafe — 2:45 p.m. ET

2018 World Cup Best XI (so far)

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With 48 of 64 games played at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a look at the brightest stars of the group stage…

[ MORE: Predicting the round of 16 ]

GK — Cho Hyun-woo — Only Guillermo Ochoa (17) made more saves than Cho (12), who made six in South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Germany — the majority in spectacular fashion — and three each in disappointing defeats to Mexico and Sweden. The Taegeuk Warriors weren’t knocked out due to any shortcomings in goal.

DF — Andreas Granqvist — Sweden conceded just two goals in three games against Germany, Mexico and South Korea, and their 33-year-old captain has been a massive part of the why and the how.

DF — Yerry Mina — Mina’s been solid in defense for Colombia, but he’s done the majority of his damage at the other end of the field. Two goals in two games played, and they were both game-winners.

DF — Jose Gimenez — No one has more interceptions (11) and only seven players have won more tackles (6) than the 23-year-old Uruguayan, who just edges out his steady-as-ever partner — for club and country — Diego Godin.

[ MORE: 10 best goals of the group stage ]

MF — Viktor Claesson — Two assists and six key passes in 254 minutes of work. For all the talk about the tough-nosed, dogged defense — and rightly so — Claesson has been at the center of everything going forward.

MF — Luka Modric — He’s been one of the three best midfielders in the world for a half-decade now, and he’s finally getting due credit after playing a massive part in Real Madrid winning three straight Champions League titles, while Croatia are a rare instance of a national team’s personnel fitting together in every way imaginable.

MF — Philippe Coutinho — With Neymar still working back toward his absolute best — and returning to his diving ways — Coutinho picked up the slack in the goal-scoring and -creating (2 goals, 1 assist) and playmaking departments (10 key passes in three games) during group play.

MF — Kevin De Bruyne — While it felt like De Bruyne didn’t quite put his stamp on Belgium’s dominant victories over Panama and Tunisia — the only games in which he played — the Manchester City man still racked up nine key passes in 180 minutes. His outside-of-the-foot ball to Romelu Lukaku is a strong contender for the pass of the tournament.

[ MORE: The five knockout round games we most want to see ]

FW — Harry Kane — Five goals in 153 minutes — even if two of them were from the penalty spot — is a pretty impressive haul for a 24-year-old making his World Cup debut. England will go as far as Kane’s goals can take them.

FW — Romelu Lukaku — Pretty clearly the most destructive and dominant performer we’ve seen thus far, Lukaku racked up four goals (in just 149 minutes) before suffering a minor ankle injury and sitting out the final group game against England.

FW — Cristiano Ronaldo — Portugal’s leading man opened the tournament with a hat trick in the 3-3 draw with Spain, then followed it up with the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Morocco.His free kick — the 88th-minute equalizer in the game against Spain — was, and still is, pure art.