Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has saluted "absolute winner" Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid's winning mentality ahead of the Supercopa de Espana final.

Madrid and Atletico go head-to-head in Jeddah on Sunday as they tussle for the first trophy of the Spanish season.

The revamped Supercopa has received plenty of criticism due to it taking place in Saudi Arabia and including teams that otherwise would not have been involved in previous years, as the competition used to be contested between the winners of the Copa del Rey and LaLiga.

Neither Madrid nor Atletico won either competition last term, yet they will play out the final, with Simeone well aware of Los Blancos' obsession with winning.

Zidane may be without several high-profile players but, after they dispatched Valencia easily, Simeone does not think such absences will be a factor.

"Madrid are a team we know very well, they have a coach who is an absolute winner," Simeone told reporters on Saturday.

"Every time they play, they transmit that they have to win and they do win. They are without [Karim] Benzema, [Gareth] Bale and [Eden] Hazard, but that doesn't change a thing, they'll be looking to field their strongest side.

"Their distribution is excellent and they'll have players arriving to join the attack from midfield.

"They've got Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo [Goes], and if they play the team will have more velocity and more possession, so we will have to think about how we can attack those positions and punish them in the way we want."

In Zidane's pre-match news conference, the Frenchman insisted he is a better coach now than when he guided Madrid to three successive Champions League crowns – beating Atletico to lift the first of those in 2015-16.

Simeone has a similar feeling for his own abilities, convinced he is getting better with age.

"It's like life itself, we improve with age," he said. "All of the experience you build up with time helps you to develop.

"I think I've grown in life and in sport, and I'm a believer that you can't really separate the two."

Zinedine Zidane believes he is a better coach now than he was when he led Real Madrid to three Champions League successes.

Zidane returned for a second spell in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu in March 2019, 10 months after departing the club in the aftermath of guiding them to a third successive continental crown.

His return has not always been plain sailing with Madrid ending last season third in LaLiga, 19 points adrift of arch-rivals Barcelona while both Spanish giants - who are tied atop the table - have been largely underwhelming this term.

He has found some joy in the Supercopa de Espana, however, with his team through to Sunday's final against Atletico Madrid following Wednesday's 3-1 defeat of Valencia.

And Zidane suggested he has learned from both his time away from the game and the club's recent, relative struggles.

He told reporters: "Yes, I think I'm better. I feel like I have developed. In life too, as a person.

"You learn from situations, from the people around you. I make sure to listen to the people who are alongside me, and my aim to is to keep on progressing."

Atleti beat Barca 3-2 in Thursday's second semi-final and Zidane is expecting a difficult encounter.

"They're a side who have always shown how strong they are," he said.

"They defend well, but they also attack very well, too. Both Atletico and Barcelona are very strong teams, so we were always going to have to be on our mettle."

Zidane refused to dwell too deeply on the story dominating the sporting agenda in Spain: Xavi's potential return to Barca as coach at the end of the season.

The Frenchman said the speculation surrounding his Barca counterpart Ernesto Valverde came with the territory.

He told reporters: "That happens to all of us as coaches. What he's going through is something we all go through as coaches."

One story is dominating the sporting agenda in Spain on Saturday: Xavi's potential return to Barcelona.

The Catalan giants have reportedly earmarked the club great to take over from the under-pressure Ernesto Valverde at the end of the season, and held informal discussions with him on Friday in Doha.

Xavi, 39, is currently coach at Al Sadd but would likely relish a return to Camp Nou, where he won eight LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies during a glittering playing career.

A strong affinity with a club is not a guarantee of success, however, and we have taken a look at eight other examples of players returning to manage teams they starred for.

 

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping away in May 2018, only to return 10 months later.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job. He is now back in Serie A and thriving with the Old Lady's bitter rivals Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Like Lampard, Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try and save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for AC Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league finish in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane was delighted with the performance of his new-look side in their 3-1 Supercopa de Espana victory over Valencia.

Goals from Toni Kroos, Isco and Luka Modric sealed a commanding victory for Madrid in Jeddah, with Dani Parejo's penalty in second-half stoppage time offering scant consolation.

With Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale unavailable along with longer-term absentees Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, Zidane experimented with his line-up by playing without wingers and using Isco and Modric as the most advanced players in a five-man midfield.

The move paid dividends on Wednesday as both players produced excellent displays in support of Luka Jovic and in front of Kroos, Casemiro and Federico Valverde in deeper midfield roles.

Zidane suggested the tactic could be used again this season as it allows Madrid's full-backs more space to attack against teams defending in deep blocks.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, he said: "We put in all the ingredients to win the game and it's a deserved victory.

"We're working well. Emotionally, we're doing well. We have all the ingredients to play good games. That's what we did against Valencia, against opponents who are very good.

"We pressed high very well. The second half was much more direct and I'm happy because it's not easy against a very good team, who know how to play well. We can be pleased.

"Today, the option was to put Isco and Modric on the inside to have more runs from the full-backs.

"It was the option for today. We can play with wingers, but we did it the other way around, with more central players and using the wings with our full-backs. It worked for us.

"We prepare really well for games, we understand them very well. We're all together. In the end, it's the players that play, that give everything on the pitch."

Madrid will play Sunday's final against the winner of Thursday's second semi-final between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane described Luka Jovic as the future of Real Madrid ahead of what is likely to be an important test for the striker in the Supercopa de Espana.

With Karim Benzema injured and Gareth Bale ill, Jovic is likely to lead the Madrid attack in Wednesday's semi-final against Valencia in Jeddah.

It could be a key step for the 22-year-old, who has struggled for regular first-team football since joining from Eintracht Frankfurt for a reported €60million fee last June.

Jovic has started just four competitive matches under Zidane, with his only goal coming in the 5-0 LaLiga win over Leganes at the Santiago Bernabeu on October 30.

Zidane has been reported to be unconvinced by Jovic's potential but, speaking on Tuesday, the Madrid head coach made it clear that is not the case.

"The feelings are good, despite the absences. There's a very big squad and the rest are here to respond," he told reporters.

"Jovic is an obvious option. He is the future. He has to be calm. He is learning.

"He's a boy who wants to learn a lot. He's very good. He'll get a lot of goals. We've backed him and you have to be calm with him."

Madrid ended a run of three consecutive draws, which included a trip to Valencia that finished 1-1, with a 3-0 win at Getafe prior to heading out to Saudi Arabia for the first expanded Supercopa tournament.

Zidane's men are on a 14-match unbeaten streak and have kept clean sheets in four of their past six games in all competitions.

The former France star says their improvement in defence makes them a formidable opponent given their consistent threat in attack.

"We adapt to everything and now we're here to play a Supercopa match," he said.

"Every game is different. Valencia also have absences. Our mentality doesn't change at all. We're happy to be able to play in this competition.

"In order to attack well, you have to defend well, and that's what we're doing. If we're strong at the back and we don't let in many goals, we have the quality to cause problems for any opposition."

Another day, another Paul Pogba story.

The Manchester United star continues to be linked with a move away from Old Trafford.

Inter have reportedly emerged as a possible destination for Pogba, though United want a player in return…

 

TOP STORY – UNITED WANT MARTINEZ IN POGBA DEAL

Manchester United want to swap midfielder Paul Pogba for Inter star Lautaro Martinez, according to The Mirror.

Pogba has been linked with a return to Serie A champions Juventus and LaLiga giants Real Madrid as his future dominates headlines.

But a reunion with former Juve boss Antonio Conte at Inter could be in the pipeline. However, the Italian club might have to part with Barcelona target Martinez to prise Pogba to Milan.

 

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Old Trafford and The Mirror also claims United have set their sights on Wolves forward Raul Jimenez after missing out on Erling Haaland, who opted to swap Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund.

- It comes as the Mirror says United are set to offer cash plus Jesse Lingard for Leicester City star James Maddison. The Sun, meanwhile, claims United want Toni Kroos in return if Pogba heads to Madrid.

- According to Sky Sport Italia, Barcelona defender Jean-Clair Todibo is on his way to join Milan, with the LaLiga champions keen to agree a loan deal with a counter-option should they wish to recall him. Meanwhile, the Gazzetta dello Sport says Atalanta want to re-sign Milan centre-back Mattia Caldara.

- The Daily Express reports West Ham have emerged as shock contenders to sign Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly. The star defender has been linked to United and Manchester City.

- Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa has said goodbye to Flamengo supporters via social media, prompting speculation in The Sun that the Inter-owned striker is on his way to either Chelsea or West Ham.

Chris Smalling is keen to secure a permanent deal at Roma and is ready to snub United should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer attempt to persuade him to return to Old Trafford, according to Gazzetta dello Sport.

- The Mirror says Carlo Ancelotti's Everton are eyeing a loan move for Madrid playmaker James Rodriguez.

So, 19 games in and the big three are exactly where you would expect them to be in the LaLiga table.

Saturday saw all three teams in action following the resumption of top-flight action in Spain, with leaders Barcelona conceding late to lowly Espanyol as they were held to a 2-2 draw in an entertaining derby.

While Barca remain on top, Real Madrid are now level on points with their rivals after a 3-0 triumph away at Getafe. As for Atletico Madrid, they overcame Levante 2-1 at home to make it four wins on the spin in all competitions, keeping them in touch with the top two ahead of what could be an intriguing battle (after all, Sevilla are level on points with Atleti, too).

There has not been a genuine title race in the competition since Real Madrid were crowned champions in 2016-17. After processions in the previous two seasons, Barca look to have a fight on their hands to retain the trophy.

We take a look at the state of play for all three of Spain's big guns as they prepare to halt league duties temporarily again at the halfway stage, this time to take part in the Supercopa de Espana in Saudi Arabia.

 

1. BARCELONA (40 PTS)

Positives: Lionel Messi, of course. The Argentina forward has, not for the first time, dragged his team-mates along in games. Luis Suarez continues to be productive – he brilliantly made one goal and scored the other against Espanyol – and Barca are comfortably the competition's leading scorers, even if Antoine Griezmann has, so far, failed to fully deliver since his big-money move to Camp Nou. The development of Ansu Fati, whose meteoric rise has helped cover for Ousmane Dembele's absences, has been an undoubted plus, too.

Negatives: What difference has Valverde really made to the team he inherited from Luis Enrique in 2017? Back-to-back league titles is an impressive achievement, obviously, but stunning Champions League exits to Roma and Liverpool in the previous two seasons weigh heavily on his shoulders. As for the team itself, the strong spine that has been a characteristic of Barca for many seasons is starting to feel the strain. Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are no longer at the peak of their powers and they have already shipped 23 league goals. Valverde also needs to work out his best combination in midfield, though he may have to wait until Arthur is fit to settle on an ideal line-up.

2. REAL MADRID (40 PTS)

Positives:  It has not been plain sailing for Zidane in his second spell in charge, with the first half of the campaign including a hammering against Paris Saint-Germain in Europe and a humbling at the hands of Real Mallorca. Still, he has built from the back, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois regaining his form to back up a defence that has conceded just 12 times in LaLiga. At the other end, Karim Benzema continues to lead the way, scoring 12 times and also providing five assists, while Federico Valverde has developed into such a consistently strong midfielder that talk of signing Paul Pogba has quietened, if only a little.

Negatives: Benzema cannot be relied on to do all the heavy lifting. Eden Hazard has only been able to show flashes of his talent since joining from Chelsea, the Belgium forward hampered by injuries, while Gareth Bale has been in and out of the team. Rodrygo Goes has shown flashes of promise, seeing him overtake fellow Brazilian Vinicius Junior in the pecking order. It feels as if an era will soon come to an end at Madrid, but an ageing squad knows how to prevail in the big moments. This could well be the last hurrah for some big names in the Spanish capital – do they have the stamina to go the distance and finish as champions?


3. ATLETICO MADRID (35 PTS)

Positives: No matter who they buy, and no matter what happens in friendlies (remember Atleti stuck seven past Real Madrid in a pre-season fixture last July), this still has all the trademarks of a Diego Simeone side. Some of the familiar old faces may have gone but they remain solid in defence and workmanlike going forward. Simeone builds his teams from the back – and this current version have only given up 12 goals, even while bedding in new players. Alvaro Morata has stepped up in the absence of Diego Costa, who appeared to be in a state of decline prior to his current injury, and they do have a plethora of hard-working midfielders to rotate down the stretch.

Negatives: Goals. Well, a lack of them actually. Morata is their leading scorer in the league with nine, ahead of Angel Correa on three, and next on the list is Joao Felix with two, but the Portuguese forward has started 2020 stuck in a drought. Atleti have managed to find the net 22 times in 19 games, which perhaps explains why they have been linked with moves for Edinson Cavani and Paco Alcacer during the January window. Plus, for all their focus on keeping clean sheets, they still have to lean on the outstanding Jan Oblak at times to make key saves. The goalkeeper demonstrated as much against Levante, twice denying the visitors in the closing stages to preserve a slender lead at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Zinedine Zidane believes Raphael Varane's brace in the 3-0 win at Getafe showed how Real Madrid do not only have to rely on their forwards to score goals.

Los Blancos returned to duty having scored just once in their previous three LaLiga matches, but France international Varane netted either side of half-time to put them firmly in control against Jose Bordalas' men.

Luka Modric added a third deep into additional time to wrap up Madrid's biggest league win since November 9, and Zidane said his side's patience had paid off in the derby fixture.

"I already said that you have to be calm in front of goal," the Madrid coach told reporters.

"You have to be calm because sometimes the ball does not fit. And with goals today from Varane, it shows that we have many resources to score.

"For us, it is important to win here because it is a very complicated league. The boys have been plugged in since minute one with great intensity."

Zidane also paid tribute to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who kept his third consecutive clean sheet to help his side go top of the table, albeit with previous leaders Barcelona playing later on Saturday.

The Belgium international was unbeatable in goalless draws with Barca and Athletic Bilbao prior to the mid-season break, leading to Zidane underlining the importance of his performances.

"I am happy for him and sure he is happy with his work," Zidane said of Courtois. "We are happy for him and he is for us.

"We have suffered in some games and Courtois has been very good. We have played as a team, which is the most important in these games and against these teams.

"We achieved a good result as a team, thanks to everyone’s efforts."

Gareth Bale is named in Real Madrid's starting XI for the clash with Getafe, along with Isco, as they return to LaLiga duty.

Bale - who has been linked with a move away from Madrid in the January window - has made 11 league appearances in total in 2019-20, including starting the rearranged Clasico against Barcelona on December 18.

The Wales forward also came on as a substitute in late December matches against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao prior to the mid-season break.

However, Zinedine Zidane has handed the 30-year-old a chance to impress from the off against Getafe in Madrid's first outing in 2020.

Bale starts up top alongside Karim Benzema and Isco, who has been restricted to just 10 league appearances this season, having been hampered by a hamstring injury and inconsistent form.

Meanwhile, Eder Militao - who has struggled to establish himself as a regular since moving to Madrid from Porto - starts at the back in place of Sergio Ramos, who is suspended.

There is no place for Marcelo, who has been battling a calf injury, while Eden Hazard is still out with an ankle problem.

Zinedine Zidane sought to avoid discussing mooted Real Madrid target Paul Pogba, wishing the Manchester United midfielder well in his recovery from injury.

Pogba has repeatedly been linked with a move to Madrid to link up with compatriot and head coach Zidane at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Zidane was asked about the player on Friday, with the January transfer window now open, but he appeared keen not to upset United.

Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revealed earlier this week Pogba would likely have surgery to fix an ongoing ankle issue, and this injury was the focus of Zidane's response.

"How can I reply to this? I'm not going to reply with anything really," Zidane told a news conference. "Paul is a player of another team.

"The important thing for him, because he's injured, is to get back playing, and that's it. I wish the best for him.

"The most important thing for us is the players that I have and to think about the game tomorrow."

Brahim Diaz and Mariano Diaz have each been linked with loan moves away from Madrid in the window, but Zidane was again cagey when asked if their departures could prompt incomings.

"The important thing is to speak to each one of the players - that's what I'm doing," he said. "There are players who haven't been playing minutes, and that could be a problem.

"We'll talk about it, as always. They're all here, they're all training, trying to train well. Until January 31, anything could happen, a lot of things could happen. We'll see."

Real Madrid star Eden Hazard will miss the Supercopa de Espana in Saudi Arabia as he continues his recovery from an ankle injury, coach Zinedine Zidane has confirmed.

The Belgium international, who signed from Chelsea ahead of the 2019-20 season, has played only eight times in LaLiga, scoring once.

Hazard's most recent appearance came against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on November 26, subsequently missing a Clasico draw with Barcelona due to a small ankle fracture.

Madrid face Getafe in LaLiga this weekend, before heading to Jeddah for the revamped four-team Supercopa, but Hazard will not travel.

"Yes, he's 100 per cent out of the Supercopa," Zidane told a news conference on Friday. "He's not travelling.

"And, at the moment, he's in a normal process of recovery. I hope that just after the Supercopa, bit by bit, we could see him with us again."

Discussing his squad heading into 2020, Zidane added: "Every player is important.

"I've got a very good squad with a lot of good players, and I'm going to use what I have - some [players] more than others].

"Squad rotation depends on the game, it depends on a lot of things. What I'm looking at is just the next game tomorrow, where we have two or three players out.

"All the players, apart from those two or three, are available. That's good for me.

"I'd prefer to have everybody available. I have injured players, but the season is long and I'm going to need every player. That's my message."

Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano believes Pep Guardiola is the best coach in world football, but admits it is hard to argue with Zinedine Zidane's record at Real Madrid.

Guardiola won five major trophies in his first three full campaigns at the Etihad Stadium, including a clean sweep of domestic honours last season.

City look unlikely to retain their Premier League title, trailing leaders Liverpool by 14 points after a dramatic 3-2 defeat to Wolves on Friday.

Zidane has come under scrutiny since returning to Madrid, despite an incredible first stint at the club that saw him win three successive Champions League trophies.

And while Soriano agrees with Zidane's recent sentiment that Guardiola is the finest coach around, the City CEO has spoken of his admiration for the France legend.

 

"In the case of Zidane, the results speak for themselves, as in the case of Pep," he said at the the Globe Soccer Awards event. 

"There are all the titles he has won in LaLiga, the Bundesliga, the Premier League. For me, Guardiola is the best coach in the world because he is our [coach]."

City have never won the Champions League and face a huge challenge to be crowned European champions this season, having been drawn against Madrid at the last-16 stage.

The first leg is to be held at the Santiago Bernabeu on February 26 and Soriano believes there is very little between the two teams.

"You look at them and wherever you look - the quality of the players, the money invested, the salaries we pay - these are two great teams that are very even," he said. 

"It is unlikely that one team is far superior to the other - it will depend on how these two games take place.

"As usually happens in the Champions League, the tie can depend on a small detail, a defensive mistake or a referee error, which can be decisive."

Asked how the sides compare in terms of style of play, Soriano added: "You usually insist on the importance of City's style of play, while Real Madrid's style is usually winning no matter how.

"With Zidane they have won three Champions Leagues in a row. That's the reality. They have won three Champions Leagues in a row with Zidane and four in five years. Discussions about the style of play die when the data is exposed.

"I talk about what concerns Manchester City, where we play a certain style of football, but we do it because we believe in it and also because we are doing well, because when we don't play well we usually lose. 

"Ours is a way of looking at simple football: we have to play our way, and we can execute it in different ways, but the style, the fundamentals, have to be the same so that we do well.

"We can never lose that essence. Maybe other teams can play in several different ways, but not us."

Zinedine Zidane said Real Madrid will "absolutely not" sign a striker in January following another toothless display against Athletic Bilbao.

Madrid failed to score in back-to-back games after playing out a 0-0 LaLiga draw with Athletic at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Toni Kroos and Nacho hit the crossbar either side of half-time, before substitute striker Luka Jovic was also denied by the base of the post with four minutes remaining.

Karim Benzema has shouldered the goalscoring load for Madrid this season with 12 LaLiga goals and 16 across all competitions, while big-money off-season recruit Jovic has only found the back of the net once since arriving from Eintracht Frankfurt.

However, Madrid head coach Zidane dismissed the possibility of attacking reinforcements as Los Blancos look to dethrone LaLiga champions Barcelona this term.

Asked if he would request a new striker, Zidane replied: "No. Absolutely not, I don't see the need to sign a striker."

The stalemate against Athletic is the fifth time Madrid have fired a blank in LaLiga this season, with Zidane's men two points behind leaders Barca heading into 2020.

"I'm annoyed by this," Zidane said. "My players have left everything on the pitch. "I'm looking at the positives and the good thing is that we're doing well. Three points from nine [available in the last three games] isn't much.

"As always, when we play a game like we did and have chances [to score], I'm annoyed for the players. For the effort that we put in, we're annoyed that we didn't score the chances that we had.

"If you have chances, you have to score them, and we've had lots of the ball in the last three games and very few goals. It's not bad luck or [a lack of] conviction - the important thing is creating chances.

"We created so many chances... we're going to continue; it's going to go in [eventually]. Now it's not going in, but we can't let our heads drop. We have to think that it's been a very good year.

"We're ending a bit flat but we're looking forward to starting 2020. I don't think [the lack of goals] is a problem, but everyone has their own opinion. We're calm. What we've done in the last four or five months was good."

Real Madrid allowed Barcelona to take an advantage into LaLiga's mid-season break after Athletic Bilbao held them to a second goalless draw in a week.

Following Wednesday's stalemate at Camp Nou in El Clasico, Zinedine Zidane's men drew a blank once more against their obdurate Basque opponents.

Toni Kroos and Nacho hit the crossbar either side of half-time and substitute Luka Jovic struck the base of the post with four minutes to play.

Champions Barca lead their great rivals by two points after 18 matches, having dispatched Alaves 4-1 on Saturday, while Athletic edge up to seventh and remain firmly in the European hunt

Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Jr leant a vibrant edge to the Madrid attack during the opening exchanges, with the latter denied by the boot of Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon at the end of a slaloming run.

The visitors allowed Kroos to saunter into the box on the end of Ferland Mendy's 19th-minute pass, the Germany midfielder cracking a shot against the crossbar from close quarters.

Athletic served notice of their threat a few moments later when Raul Garcia seized upon an unusually slack pass from Federico Valverde and sent Inaki Williams haring past Eder Militao. Thibaut Courtois was equal to the task at his near post.

Simon held a Karim Benzema header from Rodrygo's cross late in the first half and the Athletic keeper was grateful to see his bar frustrate Madrid once more before the hour.

Nacho rose highest to Kroos' right-wing delivery but could not direct his powerful effort downwards.

Simon plunged to keep out Benzema's angled 64th-minute shot, shortly after Gareth Bale replaced Rodrygo.

But it was another replacement, Jovic, who came closest to a winner - Simon looking on dejectedly, only for the Serbia forward's header to loop down against his upright.

What does it mean? Shot shy Madrid paying the price in the title race

There is little to choose between Barcelona and Real Madrid in terms of points as LaLiga heads into recess. However, the difference in terms of goals scored is 14 in Barca's favour and those deficiencies could tell dearly down the stretch for a Madrid team who have only lost once in the top flight this term but now drawn seven times.

Simon says, no way through

Even allowing for the fact Madrid's attack is not the potent force it once was, Athletic still needed a superb showing from their last line of defence. The latest goalkeeper off the production line that yielded Kepa Arrizabalaga, the 22-year-old Simon was near-faultless and deserved his moments of fortune.

Clock ticking on the Modric-Kroos axis

Real Madrid's engine room boasts two of the finest midfield talents of this decade in European football. As is customary, Kroos and his old ally Luka Modric were easy on the eye in a manner that sometimes becalmed the Santiago Bernabeu's mounting frustration. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this Madrid need more dynamism and goal threat from deep and an interesting January beckons as those Paul Pogba rumours refuse to abate.

What's next

Madrid return to action on January 4 with a short trip to Getafe, while Athletic open 2020 against another of the division's high flyers, Sevilla.

Zinedine Zidane lavished praise on Pep Guardiola after Real Madrid were drawn against the ex-Barcelona coach's Manchester City side in the Champions League.

Two presumed contenders will square off in a highly anticipated last-16 tie, with the first leg to be held at the Santiago Bernabeu on February 26.

Guardiola welcomed the challenge, saying it would be "special" to share a touchline with Zidane, a man he "dreamed" of playing alongside.

The Frenchman returned the favour ahead of Madrid's LaLiga game against Athletic Bilbao, going so far as to call Guardiola the world's leading coach.

"Yes [it will be special]. I played against him many times," Zidane said on Saturday.

"I respected him as a player and I respect him as a coach. I think he is the best in the world and has demonstrated that throughout his career.

"Of course, I really want to face him, to play against him and his side. Not just myself but all of us here."

Overcoming the Premier League champions would be a huge boost for Madrid in their bid to be crowned Europe's best for the fifth time in seven years.

Zidane has overseen three Champions League victories, success equalled only by Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley, yet the Los Blancos coach claimed trophies were not what motivated him to prolong a potentially brief foray into coaching.

"I don't know if my career will last long," he said. "It will depend on what I feel. I am atypical, because what interests me is the day to day, how I am with the people who work with me. We will see, but I'm sure I won't be going up to 60 or 70."

Madrid's home match against seventh-placed Athletic comes four days after the club's strong showing in the goalless Clasico draw against Barca.

Federico Valverde impressed in midfield, raising more questions over whether his development would be stifled should rumoured target Paul Pogba arrive from Manchester United.

Zidane said: "I can only talk about my players. They are doing well. Fede is part of the heritage of the club and we are glad he is with us."

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