Real Madrid returned to training on Sunday with a closed-door session in Valdebebas, and immediately the focus turned to the Copa del Rey match this Wednesday against Alcoyano.
Sunday’s training was behind closed doors, and you can always tell that Zinedine Zidane means business when this happens. There’s training, and then there’s training. But when the sessions are in private, this is usually a sign that the coach has a pressing agenda that he wants to keep within the camp for the time being.
Travel issues over the Osasuna game last weekend and the defeat by Athletic are still fresh in mind. There’s also the injuries that will affect Zidane’s options for the up-and-coming games with Alcoyano in midweek and another trip to the north next Saturday to face Alavés.
Everyone was disappointed at losing to Athletic Club in midweek, and the Copa del Rey game provides a chance to move on from that and get the focus back on the league campaign in the weeks that follow.
With the Champions League about to resume again in late February, there will be plenty to concentrate on in the coming weeks.
Not least, Zidane will have spent some time over the weekend liaising with the medical staff for updates and progress reports on Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Rodrygo, and Raphaël Varane.
Now that Luka Jović has moved on loan to Eintracht Frankfurt we’ll find out shortly how Zidane intends to approach the midweek cup game and which players are likely to figure in his thoughts.
While people are understandably lamenting the quick exit from the Supercopa, at least the team didn’t have to travel outside of Spain this time. Travel is still a sore point for Zidane though, bearing in mind the appalling situation this time last week when Real had to travel to Osasuna in terrible conditions.
There were accusations that Zidane was looking for excuses after Real dropped two points with the draw in Pamplona. But looking at the situation around travelling as opposed to the actual game itself, suggestions that Real should have travelled on the day of the game instead of the night before just weren’t practical from a logistical aspect.
Real Madrid were not the only club affected by the weather either. While Real were sitting on a plane in Madrid Barajas airport waiting for the all-clear for take-off on the Friday, Rayo’s squad had set off by road from Madrid for their game against Mirandés, before having to turn back due to the appalling and dangerous weather conditions.
Some of Rayo’s players were even pictured helping other motorists to dig their stranded vehicles out of the snow. If both games had been scheduled for Friday night instead of Saturday, travelling on the day certainly wouldn’t have been the best of ideas under the circumstances.
In a week when Madrid had its heaviest snowfall in almost fifty years, surely there must be a case for making decisions about these fixtures a lot sooner and taking people’s safety into account when doing so.
Thibault Courtois has also drawn criticism over his comments about being made to travel to Pamplona. Bearing in mind that the goalkeeper has a habit of speaking out it seems highly unlikely that he would have held his tongue even if Real had taken all three points on the night.
We need to try to separate results from logistics in discussions of this nature, and Thibault certainly has a valid argument if we look at this purely from the safety aspect. Although several matches were off at the weekend, others went ahead anyway despite the frozen conditions.
There’s no doubt that in almost all cases the groundstaff work their socks off trying to get pitches playable, often aided by an army of loyal supporters who happily turn up armed with a shovel to help clear the snow away. Yet there are occasions where the conditions underfoot are just too dangerous for play to be allowed.
That’s a different matter though from making a journey (of any distance) in dangerous conditions. As mentioned earlier, I think we need to prioritise the risks instead of focussing on the results.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say you should have gone this way or that way or on a different day or time. But it’s also easy to overlook the dangers that accompany travelling in adverse conditions by allowing results to influence what should be an objective judgement.
17th January, 2021.
Real Madrid trained in the snow in Friday’s build-up to the Osasuna game this weekend and for once there were few absences in Zinedine Zidane’s squad.
Dani Carvajal trained separately once again and so too did Rodrygo. Both players are carrying injuries and on this occasion, kept themselves to themselves while working away at their fitness.
However, Luka Jović sustained a muscle injury in training just before the squad finished their Friday morning session before setting off to the airport for the flight to Pamplona. So the two injuries quickly became three.
We’ve come to expect more than a couple of absences in recent weeks so it’s been heartening to see the injury list gradually reducing, albeit not to the point where it doesn’t exist though.
Football has a habit of kicking you in the teeth as soon as you start to become complacent about anything at all, and boasting about having an injury-free squad is usually asking for trouble!
If we go back a few weeks, we had the situation where Real were technically injury-free on the Thursday night and then were minus three players twenty-four hours later.
Of course, on that occasion all the injuries were minor. Isco took a knock to his ankle in training, Vinicius rang in with gastroenteritis, and Zidane decided not to risk the recovering Eden Hazard against Eibar on the Sunday.
That said, it’s a little bit different this time. Rodrygo had to be substituted against Granada in the last match before Christmas with a hamstring injury, but instead of being out for a couple of weeks, it looks as if he will be out of action for a considerable length of time.
Real Madrid’s medical team were quick to confirm that Rodrigo’s injury was to the biceps femoris muscle of his right thigh, which is one of the more frequently injured of the hamstring muscles.
There’s been plenty of stats quoted over the last year about how common these injuries are in football, both in this column and elsewhere, but the majority of the injuries referred to tend to involve the fleshy, muscular part of the hamstrings.
Rodrygo’s injury is reported to be in the tendinous part of the muscle, which generally indicates a longer recovery time due mainly to the differences in structure between muscles and tendons relative to the blood supply which drives the healing process.
The larger, bulky part of the hamstrings contain lots of muscle fibres and these respond quicker to treatment due to the increased availability of oxygen in the blood. Tendons, which have a relatively poorer blood supply by comparison, generally take longer to heal.
The function of a tendon is to join the muscle to the bone but the area where the muscle becomes tendinous, known as the musculotendinous junction, is also the weakest part of a muscle and highly susceptible to injury.
It may be that Rodrygo will take a little bit longer than expected to make his return to the squad, depending on the actual severity and nature of his injury.
Dani Carvajal is, as we know, suspended and therefore unable to be considered for the Osasuna game, but he also picked up a minor injury last week against Celta Vigo in addition to the yellow card that excludes him from making the trip to Pamplona.
Minor injuries can be tricky though and without knowing the exact extent of Dani’s injury it’s impossible to comment on his progress at this stage, but for obvious reasons it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to push him to make an early return given the intense fixture list for the remainder of January.
Both teams put in their final training sessions today and the weather is likely to turn colder over the weekend with temperatures set to drop. The evening kick-off will only add to the risk of conditions deteriorating as the starting time approaches.
Snow isn’t as much of a problem nowadays as it used to be, at least not at elite level anyway. Matches tend to be postponed with the safety of spectators in mind rather than for any other reason. Hard, icy pitches present their problems though and sometimes a top-covering of light snow can actually be helpful.
The problem is often that the conditions underfoot can vary from one side of the field to the other, and if there is an area of the pitch that is constantly in the shade and never gets direct sunlight because of the stands, then that in itself can be an injury risk.
The priority for Real in Pamplona, apart from the obvious emphasis on taking another three points, of course, will be to come back to Madrid afterwards without any further injuries.
8th January, 2021
In the days leading up to the Eibar game on Sunday night, Real Madrid went from having a fully fit squad on Friday morning to being three players down in the space of 36 hours.
But before everyone gets too carried away, the situation wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds. Isco took a knock on his ankle in Real’s last training session on the Saturday and Vinicius also missed the session due to symptoms of gastroenteritis on Friday night / Saturday morning.
Finally, although Eden Hazard has now returned to training, Zinedine Zidane decided not to risk the Belgian striker, sensibly leaving him out of the squad that travelled to Ipurúa.
It just shows how quickly things can change in football. After a period where the injuries seemed to pile up one on top of another, it was a different story after Real’s win over Athletic Club Bilbao last Tuesday night. In a game that turned out to be quite physical, neither side finished the match with any significant injury concerns.
Zidane was even more delighted to come through another tough game against Eibar on Sunday without Real Madrid appearing to pick up any further injuries. Based on the season so far, he’ll have been relieved that everyone came through the game against the Basque side relatively unscathed.
That too was another physical game. Karim Benzema took a knock right at the end of the first half but it didn’t seem to affect him, and Luka Modrić was seen with an ice pack immediately after making way for Fede Valverde late in the second half. Both players will be assessed for any reaction and monitored over the next 48 hours.
Those few days that followed the Athletic Bilbao game when Real Madrid had a blank injury list are highly unusual in football. Coaches rarely have a full squad available at any stage of the season, but to come through such an intensive series of games that Real Madrid have had to play in the last fortnight is a triumph in itself.
It’s not only injuries that clubs have to contend with either. At this time of year, players often succumb to chest infections and other common ailments, but this time around we are seeing players going into self-isolation if they return a positive COVID test.
This is something that can’t be allowed for in terms of prevention, but it’s fair to say that the impact of COVID has been felt right across La Liga.
Although all the training sessions are conducted under the strict regulations introduced as a result of the pandemic, it goes without saying that it’s as impossible to legislate for illness just as it is impossible to legislate for injury.
Since La Liga restarted in June, the frequency of matches has made recovery and preparation for the next game a challenge in itself.
Real now have another league fixture to play on Wednesday night against Granada at the Alfredo Di Stéfano and that’s followed a week later by a game at Elche on the 30th December.
So once again there’s not much time between matches. We’ll almost certainly see Zidane working the rotation system once again, and the players who didn’t start at Eibar will likely be in for a couple of intense physical days.
With two potentially difficult games ahead on either side of Christmas, Zidane is going to want to make sure that everyone is in the best condition possible in terms of fitness.
Eden Hazard will join the returning trio of Martin Ødegaard, Luka Jović, and Mariano Díaz (all of whom were on the bench in Ipurúa) and the training will be stepped up accordingly to meet the demands of the next ten days.
With such an intensive schedule ahead, this is not the time to take chances with players’ fitness. That’s likely to be the underlying theme in Valdebebas at the moment, and although Eden Hazard returned to full training last week, there is still work to be done in term of returning to match fitness.
It can be easy for a return to training to be taken as a sign that a place in the team will quickly follow, but often that’s not the case. Medical discharge is rarely an endorsement of a full return to play and is usually likely to end in tears unless players have fully recovered and are ready to do so.
That’s going to be uppermost in Zidane’s mind during the next few weeks, particularly where Eden Hazard is concerned, and bearing in mind Eden’s injury history this year he’s likely to take extra care as a result.
21st December, 2020
A fortnight ago it was Dani Carvajal who gave Zinedine Zidane a boost with his comments about solidarity and team spirit, and this week it was Sergio Ramos.
He's not afraid to take on Conor McGregor it seems, going by earlier comments made this week in the gym, but there was nothing tongue-in-cheek about the message he delivered to the players in Thursday's meeting with Real's first-team squad.
At the beginning of a monumentous eight days which started with Real taking all three points against Sevilla on Saturday, the skipper got everyone together before training.
He then pulled no punches in emphasising what he expected of the team in advance of the midweek Champions League game against Borussia Mönchengladbach, and next weekend’s Madrid derby with neighbours Atlético.
The fact that he knew he wouldn’t be involved in the Sevilla game will only have fuelled his emotions. Currently of action due to a hamstring injury picked up in Spain's recent match with Germany in mid-November - an injury described by national team coach Luis Enrique as 'minor'- he's only now getting anywhere near back to full fitness.
But that hasn't stopped Sergio from continuing to provide his own brand of inspiration and enthusiasm from the side-lines in addition to giving his under-fire coach some much-needed support at a time when he needs it most.
AS reported that although the core of Real Madrid's playing squad are behind Zidane, it's thought that some of those on the periphery of the first team don't necessarily share the same view.
That's often a natural and only to be expected reaction from players whose names aren't usually first on the team sheet, but there will always be an expectation from Ramos and co that personal issues are put to the side at a time when divisiveness is clearly not productive.
High profile and very pro-Zidane personalities like Iker Casillas have already come out in public backing the coach and questioning why, at a time when he needs support most, people are quick to turn. ''Now is the time to trust him'' was the view expressed by Iker.
Zidane still has the backing of the president, Florentino Pérez, and predictably he stuck his with man after the defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek. That's not to say though that in the interests of the club he wouldn't be afraid to make changes, but having stuck with Zidane this far, the likelihood is that he'll stick with him even longer.
Zidane has never been one to play the injury card. Despite having a season where Madrid have had one injury to contend with after another, he's remained aloof to the temptation to blame results on missing key players or point fingers at players who have been unavailable through injury.
The latest to wade into the injury debate over Eden Hazard's fitness is Belgium's national team doctor, Kris van Crombrugge, who had his say in midweek over the number and frequency of Eden's appearances since returning from injury last month.
Critical of how Zidane had used Eden Hazard lately, the doctor felt that the mental stress of trying to meet Real Madrid's expectations had partially contributed to Hazard's vulnerability to injury in a physical sense. Not surprisingly, this was quickly refuted.
As Zidane pointed out, return to play decisions are taken in conjunction with the medical and coaching staff plus the player himself, and unless everyone is happy then he prefers to err on the side of caution.
We've been there before. It's easy for the national team medical staff who don't see the players on a daily basis to get involved in injury situations from afar.
No doubt the doctor has Eden Hazard's welfare in mind but so too do Real's medical staff, and Zidane himself has never been one to push players to turn out in matches when they are clearly unfit to do so.
Zidane conducted himself with dignity when Gareth Bale suffered a run of injuries before moving back to London with Tottenham and refused to push the player into making an early return or be drawn on the extent of those injuries.
Zidane is conducting himself with dignity at the moment in the most difficult of circumstances. Despite waiting for key players to make a return from injury, he refuses to be drawn on any suggestions of divisiveness within the camp while continuing to focus on the preparations for Saturday's game.
From an injury aspect, Real Madrdi have Álvaro Odriozola is back in the squad, but Zidane is still without Eden Hazard (rectus femoris strain), Danny Carvajal (adductor brevis injury), Fede Valverde (tibial fracture), and of course Sergio Ramos.
The latter, though, will be playing his part from the side-lines in the win at Sevilla and is likely to be included in Zidane’s squad against Mönchengladbach on Wednesday.
14th December, 2020
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