Hazard in line to make Madrid return as Zidane hints at squad rotation

By Sports Desk December 29, 2020

Eden Hazard will be eased back into action for Real Madrid in Wednesday's LaLiga trip to Elche, with boss Zinedine Zidane hinting he is ready to rotate his squad.

Belgium international Hazard has not featured for Madrid since injuring his thigh during the first half of the shock 2-1 home loss to Deportivo Alaves on November 28.

He was back in the squad for last Wednesday's 2-0 win over Granada, remaining an unused substitute for that game.

Zidane revealed after the victory - Madrid's sixth in a row in all competitions - that he was not willing to risk Hazard and will instead slowly work the forward back to full fitness.

After another week on the training ground, Hazard is now in contention to play a part against Elche at Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero.

"He'll be there tomorrow and the plan is for him to play a little," Zidane said at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"The other day we decided something different. He has been with the team for several days now and we're looking to make the most of that."

Hazard has played 19 times for Madrid in LaLiga since arriving in a big-money move from Chelsea in June 2019, scoring only twice and assisting three more.

Even when fit and available, the 29-year-old has struggled to live up to expectations - his 21 chances created hardly an outstanding figure.

That equates to 1.5 key passes per 90 minutes, which is some way off Real Betis winger Joaquin (2.69) and Barcelona star Lionel Messi (2.68) as LaLiga's most frequent creators among those to have played at least 16 times since the start of 2019-20.

Hazard faces a challenge holding down a spot in the side, however, with Zidane keeping changes to a minimum in terms of his starting line-up during Madrid's impressive winning run.

But with games against Elche and Celta Vigo to come in the space of four days, Zidane suggested he is open to giving some of his fringe players an opportunity to impress.

"There are a lot of professionals here and there are very competent people paying attention to that [the risk of injury]," he said. "We will never take a risk if we know that a player can get hurt.

"The general risk is there, because there are a lot of games and training sessions. But there are very good people here."

Asked specifically about left-back Marcelo and attacking midfielder Isco, who have started a combined eight league games this term, Zidane said: "I'm counting on all my players.

"All the players are training well. That's good news for a coach. They're very professional and I think they're training well.

"I'm happy to see all the players focused. They'll all have chances to play. All these players want to play. It's difficult to leave players out, but this is part of the coach's job and it's the bad part."

Reports from Spain suggest Luka Modric is close to agreeing a one-year contract extension with Madrid and Zidane reiterated he is hopeful Lucas Vazquez and skipper Sergio Ramos will also sign fresh terms.

"The debate is there and you know how I feel about these things," he said.

"We want all these players to stay here because they are the best. I want these things fixed and quickly, of course."

Madrid, level on points with league leaders Atletico Madrid having played two games more, have won their past eight LaLiga games against next opponents Elche.

Related items

  • 'The show has to go on' - JFF boss Ricketts cautions players not willing to accept what federation can afford risk being left out 'The show has to go on' - JFF boss Ricketts cautions players not willing to accept what federation can afford risk being left out

    Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) boss Michael Ricketts has called on the country’s national players to be ‘reasonable’ and ‘balanced’ in their demands, given what the organisation has laid out as severe financial limitations.

    With one day left before the deadline to sign contracts for the upcoming campaigns, the JFF and representatives of some national players remain far apart on wage demands.  The JFF has submitted a final offer to US$2,000 (300,255.80) per match, per player for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the players have, however, requested US$7,000 ($1,050,895.30).

    According to Ricketts, however, the offer made by the JFF is grounded in the reality of what the federation can afford and as a result, is unlikely to be adjusted.

    “We are still waiting and hoping for an amicable settlement.  I do hope that the players will be reasonable and balanced in whatever they decide to do.  I hope that they will agree to something that is manageable,” Ricketts told TVJ Sports.

    “The committee has been having talks in recent times with the lawyer who represents some of the players.  How many of the players he legitimately and legally represents we are not sure but we want to ensure that we do have a relationship with our players,” he added.

    The JFF president, however, warned that some players run the risk of being left out of the program if no agreement could be reached in time.

    “I way to say that is a player insists that he is not signing for what we can afford to pay, then we are not going to hold anything against that player or particular players but the show has to go on and if there are players willing to play and some who are not willing to play then we will have to go with those who are willing to play,” Ricketts said.

  • Carolina Panthers: Ready to accelerate timeline after bright start for Rhule Carolina Panthers: Ready to accelerate timeline after bright start for Rhule

    Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

    The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

    Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

    Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

    We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


    Offense

    After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

    Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

    That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

    Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

    Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

    That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

    Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

    He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

    Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

    Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

    They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

    That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

    Defense

    The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

    Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

    Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

    And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

    Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

    Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

    Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

    The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

    This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

    Offseason

    It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

    With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

    Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

    Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

    Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

    Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

    The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

  • Mariano Diaz set to miss Madrid derby with pelvic injury Mariano Diaz set to miss Madrid derby with pelvic injury

    Real Madrid will likely be without Mariano Diaz for the derby with Atletico Madrid after the striker sustained a pelvic injury.

    The 27-year-old was taken off after 61 minutes of Monday's 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

    Madrid announced on their official website on Thursday: "Following the tests carried out today on our player, Mariano Diaz, by the Real Madrid medical department, he has been diagnosed with a muscle injury to his left external obturator. His recovery will be monitored."

    Mariano is expected to miss Sunday's clash with the LaLiga leaders, leaving Zinedine Zidane's side facing a striker shortage.

    Karim Benzema is battling to be fit after missing three games with adductor problems, with 21-year-old Hugo Duro called upon for the final half-hour against Sociedad for just his second LaLiga appearance in Madrid colours.

    The champions head into the contest with Diego Simeone's side trailing them by five points in the table, having played a game more.

    However, they are unbeaten in the past nine league derby matches and are the only side from Spain's top flight to have played at the Wanda Metropolitano and avoided defeat.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.