Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane praised matchwinner Isco’s importance to the team after the ex-Malaga player scored one and made the other in Sunday evening’s 2-1 La Liga victory at his former club.
With stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale left at home, Isco put the visitors ahead with a 25-yard free kick just before the half-hour mark, then assisted teammate Casemiro to make it 2-0 midway through the second half.
The local boy left the pitch with 20 minutes remaining to a standing ovation from his former club’s fans, for whom Diego Rolan’s added-time goal was not much consolation with Malaga now 14 points off safety with just six games remaining.
The Los Blancos coach told the postmatch news conference that he was happy with Isco’s performance, especially that he had not just played well but been decisive on the scoreboard.
“We are happy with [Isco’s] game, and with his goal,” Zidane said. “It is important to score sometimes too. He played a great game back home, and I am happy for him and the team. The fans here received him very well and he deserved that. He has been an important player for Malaga, and today he is for Madrid.”
The three points lifted last year’s La Liga champions to third in the table, albeit 15 points behind this season’s runaway leaders Barcelona. Zidane said a victory had been important especially after losing 3-1 at home to Juventus in Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg, even if they had still progressed 4-3 on aggregate.
“We are happy to be back into third place,” Zidane said. “We played a very serious game, respecting the rival, it is not easy to play against a team who maybe do not deserve to be bottom of the table. We were not happy after the defeat at home to Juve. We were happy to go through, but not to lose the game. We had to win today and we did that.”
There was no injury reason for Bale’s absence, Zidane said, while suggesting there would be further rotation in Wednesday’s La Liga game at home to Athletic Bilbao, with a week then to prepare for the UCL semifinal first leg at Bayern Munich on April 25.
“Three or four players were rested, Gareth too,” the Frenchman said. “It is not easy as I try and do as well as possible while rotating the team. We still have one game before the semifinal, on Wednesday, then a week to prepare. It is important to have all the players fit and healthy.”
Karim Benzema returned to the XI after remaining on the bench against Juve midweek, and although playing very well in open play the much-criticised centre-forward remains almost two months without a goal in open play.
“Of course he would like to score too, but [Benzema] will not throw in the towel,” Zidane said. “He had chances today, played very well, but he just lacked a goal for sure. But he will keep going, it is a difficult year for him on the level of goals, but there is still time left.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan