Zinedine Zidane sent a warm birthday message to James Rodriguez by insisting the Colombian could play a part in Real Madrid's future – but then left him out of his latest squad.

James, signed amid Galactico fanfare six years ago, has become almost a forgotten man with the Spanish giants, playing only a minor role in this season's LaLiga title charge.

His 78-minute run-out against Real Sociedad in June was a first LaLiga appearance for James since October, and he has not played since.

There are reports Madrid consider James superfluous to their needs and will look to sell him at the end of this campaign, with Manchester United among the clubs linked with him.

Zidane struck a different tone in his news conference ahead of Monday's match against Granada, even wishing James well on the attacking midfielder's birthday.

However, by later leaving James out of his 23-man squad for the Granada trip, the head coach's actions perhaps proved more telling than his words. 

"He is important, and he is ours," Zidane told reporters.

"He is 29 years old today and I congratulate him. It is true some play more and others less, but I will not look down on any player.

"Everyone brings something to the team. I can count on all of those I have."

James has just a year left on his Madrid contract and his influence has greatly diminished.

Before this season, he spent two years on loan at Bayern Munich, winning a pair of Bundesliga titles but not doing enough to secure a permanent transfer.

Signed from Monaco by Madrid in 2014 after a stellar World Cup, James was initially given the coveted number 10 shirt but now wears number 16, with his eight league appearances this season amounting to just 419 minutes on the pitch.

Zinedine Zidane is on the cusp of leading Real Madrid to a 34th LaLiga title, but the head coach continues to be plagued by the question of whether his team are anything special.

Two wins from their remaining three games over the coming week would be enough to clinch another Spanish league success, with Granada first up on Monday evening.

Madrid have been ruthless since the resumption, winning all eight games and conceding just two goals over that stretch.

It has meant previous leaders Barcelona, themselves also unbeaten over the past month, have seen a two-point advantage slip away due to three draws in their nine games.

But debate rages over the merits of this Madrid team, who arguably lack the panache of previous Los Blancos sides but have shown themselves to be a winning machine, unlike some of their more celebrated forebears.

"It doesn't bother me or surprise me, it's always the same debate," Zidane told a news conference on Sunday.

"We prove in every game and every training session that we are good. We have to show it. Everyone will give their opinion on what they think of Real Madrid because it is the most important club in history and this will never change."

Zidane, once the unpredictable flair player in Madrid's midfield, has become the straight man of the media room, a serious figure and a coach who has brought the best out of many of his players.

Rather than consider the prospect of another championship, with Villarreal on Thursday and Leganes on Sunday the other remaining games for Madrid, Zidane's focus does not deviate from the immediate task at hand.

"LaLiga and the Champions League are the goal and what we fight for, but it is useless if we look beyond tomorrow's game," he said.

"This is the last week and there are three games. It is the most difficult, but the most important. All the teams have things to play for and we want to put all our energy into tomorrow's game."

Zidane clearly finds the suggestion his team have had the better of VAR decisions over recent weeks to be thoroughly tedious, amid claims Barcelona have had a relatively raw deal.

"Everyone can give their opinion, I don't mess with the opinions of others," he said, when asked about the VAR talk.

"What we are doing is giving everything on the pitch and putting in a great effort every day. That is what I'm interested in."

Juventus and Inter are reportedly ready to do battle for Roma star Nicolo Zaniolo.

Zaniolo, 21, made his return from a serious knee injury this month and has repeatedly been linked with a move away from Roma.

A pair of Serie A giants may be ready to fight for the midfielder's services.

 

TOP STORY – INTER, JUVE TO BATTLE FOR ZANIOLO

Inter are ready to challenge Juventus to sign Roma star Zaniolo, according to CalcioMercato.

Zaniolo is considered one of Europe's best young talents, and left Inter for Roma in 2018.

Roma reportedly want at least €50million for the five-time Italy international.

 

ROUND-UP

- Contracted at Manchester City until 2021, Sergio Aguero may yet stay at the Etihad Stadium a little longer. The Mirror reports City have not ruled out giving the star forward, 32, a one-year extension.

- With Neymar repeatedly linked with a return to Barcelona, it seems the LaLiga giants are wanting to distance themselves from the Paris Saint-Germain star. Marca says Barca are keen to see the rumours of a potential return for Neymar stop.

- Staying at Camp Nou and Barcelona apparently have interest in two players from Tottenham. The Daily Star says Barca want Ryan Sessegnon and Tanguy Ndombele. However, it reports Spurs will reject all offers for Sessegnon this close season.

- Philippe Coutinho's future remains unclear. Mundo Deportivo reports the playmaker, who is on loan at Bayern Munich from Barcelona until the end of the season, will not decide his future until after the Champions League next month.

- Plenty of talk continues to surround Arsenal star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is coming out of contract at the Premier League club next year. The Daily Star reports the forward will sign a contract extension with Arsenal – if no other club makes an official approach.

- After just two goals in 25 games for Real Madrid, Luka Jovic seems set for an exit. According to Mundo Deportivo, Juventus, Inter, Chelsea, Leicester City, Milan and Napoli are all considering moves for the forward.

Zinedine Zidane is unsure if James Rodriguez will play for Real Madrid ever again.

James, 28, has been linked with a move away from Madrid and was left out of the squad for Friday's 2-0 LaLiga win over Deportivo Alaves.

It marked the second straight game in which the Colombia international has not been in the squad.

Asked if James would play for Madrid again, Zidane told a news conference: "I don't know."

James arrived at Madrid from Monaco in 2014, but spent the previous two seasons on loan at Bayern Munich.

He has played just 14 games this campaign, scoring one goal.

Zinedine Zidane praised the "phenomenal" Thibaut Courtois after Real Madrid took another step towards the LaLiga title with a win over Deportivo Alaves.

Madrid kept a clean sheet for the fifth straight game, recording a 2-0 win on Friday to move four points clear of rivals Barcelona with three games remaining.

Zidane lauded Courtois, who made four saves in Madrid's win as Karim Benzema netted a penalty before Marco Asensio's second-half goal.

"He has a very big influence. He is our goalkeeper, what he is doing every game is phenomenal," Madrid coach Zidane told a news conference, via AS.

"It is a matter for everyone when it comes to defending … today, he [Courtois] has been good for us with two or three stops, and then the strength of the entire team.

"We have to continue like this."

Madrid scored a penalty for the third straight game, while the VAR was needed to award Asensio's goal after it was initially ruled out due to an offside decision against Benzema.

As another clean sheet helped Madrid, Zidane said he was happy with his team, who are away to Granada on Monday.

"I'm not worried because the important thing is to win matches," he said.

"We didn't score four or five goals, but because there is an opponent who defends. We scored two goals, one very beautiful in play.

"I am happy and calm with what we are doing."

Raphael Varane dismissed talk the VAR favoured Real Madrid after the LaLiga giants moved closer to the league title with a win over Deportivo Alaves.

A Karim Benzema penalty and Marco Asensio goal saw Madrid record a 2-0 win on Friday, moving four points clear of rivals Barcelona with three games left.

Madrid were awarded a spot-kick for the third straight game, while the VAR was needed after Asensio's goal was initially incorrectly ruled out for an offside decision against Benzema.

Varane, who helped Madrid keep a clean sheet for the fifth straight game, was unfazed by any talk decisions were going his team's way.

"Outside noise doesn't matter to us. We are focused on winning and giving everything on the pitch," the defender told Movistar.

"We don't control the VAR, we control the effort and attitude we show on the pitch."

Madrid are closing in on their first league title since 2016-17, with Barcelona having clinched the past two crowns.

Varane said Madrid still had finals to play ahead of matches against Granada, Villarreal and Leganes to finish the league season.

"We are focused on our objective and we have three finals left," he said.

"It was important to win, of course, but it is very important to keep a clean sheet. That gives us a lot of confidence.

"We will continue with the positive dynamics we have."

Real Madrid moved a significant step nearer to a 34th LaLiga title as Karim Benzema set them on the way to a 2-0 win over Deportivo Alaves.

The gap to Barcelona in second place is back to four points, and it would take a mighty collapse from this position for the teams to swap positions.

Marco Asensio grabbed Madrid's second goal after Benzema's early penalty, and Zinedine Zidane's side could have stretched their lead as a string of chances came their way.

But lowly Alaves contributed plenty to an entertaining game, enough to suggest they can survive in the top flight under their new coach Juan Muniz.

Pep Guardiola has urged his Manchester City players to fight for the Champions League "until the last effort they have in their bodies" after Friday's draw mapped out a devilishly tough route to glory.

The deposed Premier League champions hold a 2-1 last-16 advantage over Real Madrid ahead of the August 7 return at the Etihad Stadium.

The winners of that tie will take on the victors of Lyon versus Juventus – the Ligue 1 outfit 1-0 to the good at the midway point – at UEFA's mini-tournament to decide the coronavirus-impacted Champions League in Lisbon on August 15.

Whichever team progresses from that quarter-final will meet the team remaining from Barcelona or Napoli and Bayern Munich or Chelsea.

"All of us want to try, to be ourselves in the game against Real Madrid, to try to defend really well and suffer the bad moments," Guardiola said ahead of Saturday's Premier League trip to Brighton and Hove Albion.

"Try to impose our game and our football, try to score our goals and defend the game against Real Madrid. It is incredible what [Madrid] have done in this competition, nobody has done it."

If City finally claim the prize Madrid have lifted on a record 13 occasions, they will do so in unique circumstances heightened by the reality of a trying season on and off the field.

Guardiola's team could be facing up to their final European game for two years next month, if the Court of Arbitration for Sport decides to uphold a two-season ban for contravening UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules. A verdict in the case is due on Monday.

The Champions League, along with the FA Cup, offers the chance to triumphantly salvage a campaign where they meekly surrendered the Premier League title to Liverpool.

This crescendo of events is something Guardiola believes has got through to his players.

"I feel the motivation," he said. "I have the feeling from my players and the club that we have, in the next four weeks, something that is not coming back again.

"Of course, we have the chance to fight but the situation that we have is not coming back again.

"I think the big clubs don't miss these chances to try until the last effort they have in their bodies."

The situation will certainly not come back for club great David Silva.

City's veteran playmaker is set to leave at the end of his contract and, as a World Cup and two-time European Championship winner with Spain, he is seeking the biggest honour to have eluded him over the course of a decorated career.

"David has won everything," Guardiola said. "The World Cup, European Championships with Spain, the Premier League and all the titles you can achieve except the Champions League.

"All of the players want to try but the younger ones, maybe they think they have more chances.

"Maybe David might go back to Europe with another top club and have another chance. But I'm pretty sure after one decade in this club, he will try."

With a top-four place in the Premier League now guaranteed – whatever that comes to mean – Guardiola's main challenge for the rest of the campaign is getting Silva and the rest to next weekend's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal and the Madrid match in prime condition.

He concedes this is a balancing act but will not shirk from giving Premier League minutes to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, even if sight of the star midfielder receiving a heavy knock during the closing stages of Wednesday's 5-0 win over Newcastle United caused understandable disquiet among the City faithful.

"That's part of football. The important thing is they are fit," he added.

"We cannot say one or two games, don't play and then come back. Sometimes the players who play regularly are in better condition for the important games.

"Arsenal is an important point but it's important to keep momentum and rhythm to the way we play."

Real Madrid could be without Marcelo for the rest of their LaLiga campaign after suffering an adductor injury.

The experienced left-back sustained the problem during the 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, a game in which he won the penalty that resulted in the decisive goal.

LaLiga leaders Madrid announced in the lead up to Friday's clash with Deportivo Alaves that the Brazilian's injury had been diagnosed as a problem in his left adductor muscle.

While the club refused to put a timeframe on his recovery, media reports suggest they do not expect him to be available for their three remaining league games after the visit of Alaves.

Zinedine Zidane will be without Marcelo for trips to Granada and Leganes either side of a home match against in-form Villarreal.

He is not thought to be a major doubt for the Champions League last-16 second leg against Manchester City on August 7, however.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero will not recover from his knee injury in time to face Real Madrid in the Champions League, Pep Guardiola has confirmed.

Aguero sustained meniscus damage during last month's 5-0 Premier League win over Burnley and was operated on by Guardiola's preferred surgeon, Dr Ramon Cugat.

A four-to-six-week recovery period appeared to place Aguero in contention for the August 7 second leg with Madrid, which UEFA this week announced was clear to take place behind closed doors at the Etihad Stadium.

City hold a 2-1 advantage over the 13-time European champions but, after Friday's draw paired the winner of their last-16 tie against Lyon or Juventus, they will have to try and seal a place at the final stages in Lisbon without their all-time record goalscorer.

"I told you many times no. [Defintely] no," Guardiola told a news conference when asked about Aguero's prospects.

Friday's draw mapped out City's potential route to glory, with prospective semi-final opponents coming from a quarter-final between Napoli or Barcelona and Chelsea or Bayern Munich. 

Nevertheless, Guardiola insists City must not look past an in-form Madrid who appear set to wrest LaLiga from his beloved Barca's grasp. 

"We play against Real Madrid," he said. "If we think about the next step the kings of this competition, Real Madrid, will put us out.

"There is not one person who knows Real Madrid better than me, their potential and history, and we have to play this game.

"I saw the draw maybe two or three hours after it was made. I’ve got Brighton [in the Premier League on Saturday] and continue to prepare for Arsenal [in the semi-finals of the FA Cup].

"After that, we have two games and a potential [FA Cup] final to prepare for Real Madrid. That's all I have in my mind." 

City's bid for an elusive Champions League crown might be thrown into sharper focus on Monday if the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) uphold their two-season ban from UEFA competitions for violating Financial Fair Play regulations.

Guardiola reiterated his belief that City will be cleared by CAS and, irrespective of the verdict, he does not feel events in a Swiss court room will fuel his players.

"The intention is every season to play in the Champions League as best as possible, it's not about Monday," he said.

"On Monday, I'm so confident because I know and hear the arguments of the club. Next season we will be there and after I will give my opinion and the club will give a statement."

City head to Brighton and Hove Albion looking to snap a run of three successive away defeats in the Premier League.

Guardiola could once again call upon Benjamin Mendy after revealing the left-back sat out matches against Southampton and Newcastle United over the past week due to "muscular issues". 

Real Madrid could face a reunion with Cristiano Ronaldo before a Clasico showdown with Barcelona after Friday's draw mapped out the final stages of this season's Champions League.

There are plenty of pieces to fall into place before that scenario is possible, with Madrid nursing a 2-1 deficit ahead of their last-16 return against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium next month.

The winner of the City-Madrid tie will face the victor from Lyon versus Juventus when the reformatted one-off final stages begin in Lisbon from August 12.

Ronaldo and his team-mates are 1-0 down following the away leg against their Ligue 1 opponents.

Those teams will do battle for a spot in quarter-final one, the winner of which will take on the team to emerge from quarter-final three, which was drawn as Napoli or Barcelona versus Chelsea or Bayern Munich.

Fresh from their domestic double, Bayern are strongly placed having won 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in the initial match, although Lionel Messi and his colleagues have their encounter on a knife edge following a 1-1 draw at Stadio San Paolo.

The other quarter-finals comprise teams who have already booked their spots in Lisbon.

PSG overturned a first-leg deficit to knockout Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 and face the similarly free-scoring Atalanta.

The winner of that tie will take on RB Leipzig or Atletico Madrid, who overcame respective Premier League opposition in the form of Tottenham and holders Liverpool in the previous stage.

Champions League quarter-final draw in full:

QF1) Real Madrid or Manchester City v Lyon or Juventus
QF2) RB Leipzig v Atletico Madrid
QF3) Napoli or Barcelona v Chelsea or Bayern Munich
QF4) Atalanta v PSG

Champions League semi-finals

Winner QF1 v Winner QF3
Winner QF 2 v Winner QF4

Manchester City are reportedly eager to sign Valencia star Ferran Torres, while there is set to be further movement at Chelsea.

Torres, 20, has been linked to numerous European giants after impressing at Valencia, where he came through the youth system.

City are seeking to replace Leroy Sane, who has joined Bayern Munich, and may have found their man.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY EAGER TO SIGN TORRES

Manchester City have made signing Valencia star Torres a priority, according to Cadena SER.

Contracted at Valencia until 2021, Torres has been linked with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.

Torres has scored six goals and provided seven assists in 41 games in all competitions this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- With Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner set to arrive, Chelsea could be set for further moves. Sport Bild reports defender Antonio Rudiger is in contact with Germany team-mate Kai Havertz as he tries to convince the Bayer Leverkusen star to head to Stamford Bridge.

- Staying at Chelsea and the Daily Express says Frank Lampard is looking to sell numerous players. It claims midfielder N'Golo Kante is among them and Real Madrid are eyeing the Frenchman.

- Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud could also be set for Chelsea exits. Goal reports Inter are ready to offer €22million (£19m) plus add-ons for Emerson, while they are also interested in Giroud.

- With Luka Jovic seemingly set for a Real Madrid exit, the interest is apparently growing in the forward. The Daily Star claims Leicester City have joined the race for the forward, who is said to be a target for Chelsea.

- Back at San Siro and Inter have decided to put Matias Vecino on the transfer list, according to CalcioMercato. Vecino, 28, arrived at Inter from Fiorentina in 2017.

Vinicius Junior has been included in Real Madrid's squad to face Deportivo Alaves on Friday.

The Brazilian winger has been in outstanding form for the LaLiga leaders since the season's restart, but his involvement in their next match was in doubt.

Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane revealed on Thursday that Vinicius had missed training to take a coronavirus test.

An initial test "went badly" - seemingly returning an anomalous result - and had to be repeated, Zidane said.

Madrid offered no update on Vinicius but named the 19-year-old among their 22-man group for the meeting with Alaves.

Zidane's side are a point ahead of Barcelona, who have played a game more.

Manchester City, Juventus and Barcelona will have home advantage for the crucial second legs of their Champions League last-16 ties after a UEFA ruling on Thursday.

Their respective clashes against Real Madrid, Lyon and Napoli are all on a knife edge after tight first games.

There had been talk of the return games possibly being played on neutral territory, as European football's governing body deals with how to finish its 2019-20 competitions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Champions League will be played to a conclusion in Portugal from the quarter-final stage onwards, and the Europa League will conclude similarly with its final rounds being played in Germany, with each competition aiming to complete by the end of August.

UEFA said it considered the "principle of sporting fairness" in reaching its decision regarding the last-16 ties that had started but were unresolved in each competition.

That means Manchester City will defend their 2-1 lead over Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium, Juventus will welcome Lyon to Turin, chasing a deficit after losing 1-0 to the French side in the first game, and Barcelona and Napoli will play again at Camp Nou after a 1-1 draw in Italy.

Bayern Munich, who lead Chelsea 3-0 after a successful trip to London, will take on Frank Lampard's side at the Allianz Arena.

The same rule will apply in the Europa League, although two last-16 ties in that competition have yet to begin and have been moved to Germany, where they will be played as single-leg fixtures, with Inter facing Getafe and Sevilla playing Roma.

UEFA said in a statement: "Consistent with the principle of sporting fairness and considering that current conditions - all clubs due to play at home the return leg of the round of 16 are currently playing the remaining matches of their domestic leagues in their own stadiums and that travelling is possible without restrictions for the visiting clubs – the UEFA executive committee decided that the remaining UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League round of 16 second-leg matches will be played at the home teams' stadiums.

"UEFA will continue to monitor the situation and reserves the right to reassign any such matches to the venues of the final tournament of the relevant competition should new events occur that would make it impossible to play one or more matches at the original venues."

UEFA said it would announce fixture details after Friday's quarter-final draws at its Swiss headquarters.

The governing body also said all its matches would be played behind closed doors until further notice.

"UEFA will monitor the evolution of the situation and advise on any full or partial lifting of restrictions at the appropriate time," its statement added.

Vinicius Junior must repeat a COVID-19 test after an apparently anomalous result, Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has revealed.

Zidane was speaking ahead of his team's LaLiga match against Deportivo Alaves on Friday, where Vinicius' participation is now in doubt after a test "went badly".

The 19-year-old sat out training on Thursday and must wait to find out if he will be available to face Alaves.

"The doctors informed me that the test went badly and that we need to repeat it," said Zidane, who will be without Luka Jovic after the forward was forced to self-isolate due to coming into contact with a friend who contracted COVID-19.

When he was asked to clarify whether "badly" might mean Vinicius had tested positive for coronavirus, he replied: "Sometimes there are errors. That can happen.

"Whenever something like that happens, the player can't train. I hope it's nothing and that he can be with us for Friday's game.

"We'll have his results this afternoon."

Even if Vinicius is forced to sit out, Eden Hazard will be available as Madrid seek a victory that would give them a four-point advantage over Barcelona with three games remaining.

The Belgium playmaker was absent from the back-to-back 1-0 wins over Getafe and Athletic Bilbao and has had his debut season in the Spanish capital ruined by a broken foot.

"It is not a relapse and he has trained with us normally," Zidane said.

"I hope he will be with us in the four remaining games and then in the Champions League.

"He wants to be with us and he is not afraid, but it is the third relapse and it bothers him a little.

"There are people here who know much more than me and the image [X-ray] comes out clean, it is perfect, but the discomfort is normal after a game or strong training.

"He is not afraid and wants to help the team and tomorrow he will be with us "

Marcelo faces a scan on an unspecified complaint, but Raphael Varane is set to return at centre-back after recovering from concussion.

"We haven't won anything," Zidane said, when confronted with his team's strong position heading into the final stretch.

"Four games are remaining and tomorrow is another final.

"I am sorry to repeat myself, but there is no other choice. What we want is to continue with what we are doing."

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