Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said his team were ready for their “game of the year” in Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal return against Bayern Munich, speaking after Saturday afternoon’s uninspiring 2-1 La Liga victory at home to neighbours Leganes.
With minds mostly on the return against Bayern — with Real leading 2-1 on aggregate after the first leg in Munich — Zidane rested many stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos.
Out-of-favour forwards Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema both got opportunities to stake claims for a recall to the XI for Tuesday’s game. And the pair combined as Madrid took the lead after just eight minutes, with Benzema’s shot half-blocked and looping up for Bale to acrobatically knock it past goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar for his 15th goal of the season.
A low-key encounter saw ex-Watford winger Nordin Amrabat strike the crossbar from 20 yards, before young Madrid striker Borja Mayoral made it 2-0 from close range just before half-time.
The pace dropped even further after the break, and Darko Brasanac took advantage of sloppy marking to make it 2-1 midway through the second period, with Zidane angry on the sideline.
Goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was twice then called into action to deny an equaliser as the Bernabeu got increasingly nervous, just three days before Bayern’s visit.
The Los Blancos coach told the postgame news conference that his team had learned from experience that even defending a 2-1 advantage from the first leg they must be super focused and play at their top level to remain on course for a third consecutive UCL trophy.
“We know what happened against Juventus [in the previous UCL round this year], and against Bayern last year [in the quarterfinals],” Zidane said. “We know what we must do, after the first leg, is an enormous game, in all senses of the word.
“We must be better than we have played this year, to go through. We are ready, and we have more determination than ever to reach the final. On Tuesday we are playing the game of the year.”
Injuries to Isco and Dani Carvajal leave two spots to be filled in Madrid’s XI — with youngster Marco Asensio assumed to be in line for one. Zidane suggested that winger Lucas Vazquez was set to drop back to right-back given the lack of other options.
“Lucas is an option, it could be,” he said. “Nacho has not trained yet with the team, so it seems difficult to have him for Tuesday. Achraf [Hakimi] is here, he is a very young player, his first year with the first team. We must go slowly with him, we will see what we do Tuesday, he played well today.”
Bale wore the captain’s armband during the closing stages of Saturday’s game, as the longest serving senior squad member, but the fact he remained on the pitch for the 90 minutes suggested he would return to the bench on Tuesday.
“He needs to do the same, keep as he has been doing,” Zidane said when asked if Bale needed to improve anything to return to the team for the biggest games. “He played well today. That he played the 90 minutes does not mean he will not start the game on Tuesday.”
Benzema was withdrawn midway through the second half after another frustrating display, but Zidane again defended his fellow Frenchman from criticism.
“I see Karim as always, maybe he could smile more to show you that he is feeling good,” he said. “But he is like that, as a player I did not have much of a smile either. But I am not worried about him at all.”
Madrid’s remaining mathematical chance of regaining the La Liga title will end should Barcelona earn at least a point at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday evening, despite Zidane’s side having the best record of any team over the second half of the season so far.
“We got the three points, we cannot be happy with our La Liga in general, as we lost many points at the start, we got a bit better, but you must accept some moments over a season.”
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