MADRID: French legend Zinedine Zidane takes charge of Real Madrid for the first time when Deportivo la Coruna visit what is expected to be a sold out Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
The Madrid fans turned out in their thousands to welcome Zidane at his first training session on Tuesday, hours after he replaced the sacked Rafael Benitez, who paid the price for his unpopularity with the club’s stars and fans alike after just seven months in the job.
By contrast, Zidane is beloved at the Bernabeu for his five years as a player in the Spanish capital, most notably scoring a sensational winning goal in the 2002 Champions League final.
Yet, Deportivo’s visit will be his first match in senior management having only previously coached Madrid’s feeder team Castilla for the past 18 months.
Zidane has a tough task if he is to deliver only Madrid’s second league title in eight years with Real trailing league leaders Atletico Madrid by four points and Barcelona by two – having also played a game more than the European champions.
“This is a difficult but stimulating challenge, I want to take up the challenge and do my utmost to win titles,” said Zidane.
“I will be satisfied with winning everything. Our objective is to win, we have two titles that we can win and we are going to try until the end of the season.”
Zidane has signalled his intention to retain the star attacking trident of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up front and will have a fully-fit squad to choose from after captain Sergio Ramos returned to training on Thursday.
Despite their struggles under Benitez, Madrid have been lethal at home since suffering a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona in November, scoring 25 goals in their last four games at the Bernabeu.
However, Deportivo’s resurgence under former Madrid midfielder Victor Sanchez has been one of the revelations of the season. The Galicians have only lost three times in the league this season and have already taken points off Barcelona and Atletico.
“Real Madrid are one of the best teams in the world with the best players. The sacking of the coach will make them go for it from the start with Zidane as the new coach,” said Deportivo striker Lucas Perez, who has scored 12 goals already this campaign.
“For Deportivo the fact it is the Bernabeu, that Zidane is the coach, means there will be more cameras, but I think we have shown in the Camp Nou, at Valencia and other difficult places that we will play with the same mentality to win games wherever they are.”
Barca can return to the top of the table and open up a five-point gap over Madrid when they host Granada earlier on Saturday.
The Catalans have drawn three of their last four La Liga games, but returned to goalscoring form thanks to an inspired Lionel Messi as the Argentine scored twice and created two more for Gerard Pique and Neymar in a bad-tempered 4-1 win over local rivals Espanyol in the Copa del Rey in midweek.
Luis Suarez could face up to a three-match ban for confronting the Espanyol players in the tunnel after the game, but any sanction would take effect in the Cup leaving him free to face Granada.
Atletico have the toughest challenge of the title contenders when they travel to fifth-placed Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Augusto Fernandez could make his Liga debut for Diego Simeone’s men just days after leaving Celta, whilst the hosts are likely to again be without injured Spanish international Nolito.
Top-scorer Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin will be among those to return to the Atletico side after Simeone made 10 changes for the 1-1 draw at Rayo Vallecano in the Cup on Wednesday.