Zinedine Zidane looks to keep Real Madrid on a roll
ABS-CBN Sports on Jan 15, 2016 01:54 PM
Real Madrid's new head coach Zinedine Zidane, left, enters the pitch prior a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Deportivo Coruna at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016. Real Madrid won 5-0. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — 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 Benitez.
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.
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 Sunday.
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 last weekend.
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.
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