Zinedine Zidane believes that Karim Benzema is the best striker in world football after the Frenchman's hat-trick against Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid were far from at their best on Sunday, but claimed the points thanks to Benzema, who scored for a fifth game running as his sensational season continued.

Benzema has now netted 29 goals in all competitions this term and Zidane is delighted that the former Lyon man's quality has come to the fore.

"He's two goals shy of his best record here," said the Madrid boss. "Everyone has their tastes. For me, he is the best.

"It is impressive what he is doing at the level of goals and I am happy for him. He has a lot of confidence and always wants to improve."

Substitute Gareth Bale received whistles when he came onto the pitch and he squandered an opportunity to add further gloss to the victory before teeing up Benzema for his hat-trick goal.

Zidane, however, was left puzzled by the Madrid fans' negative reaction to Bale.

"I do not get it," Zidane said when asked about the treatment of the Wales star.

"[Bale] had a chance to score and I would have liked him to do it. I will not go into the rest.

"We played a great game, we were superior, all we missed was the goal, we are happy with what we did."

Zinedine Zidane said that Real Madrid's directors know who his transfer targets are but was tight-lipped on whether Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe is one of them.

With Gareth Bale rumoured to be on his way out of the Santiago Bernabeu, speculation is rife about potential additions to Los Blancos' strike force and France international Mbappe is frequently linked with a lucrative move to Madrid.

Speaking ahead of his side's clash with Athletic Bilbao, Zidane confirmed he is in talks with his employers about the players he wants to bring in, but refused to shed light on the names on his list.

"You can ask and I will answer what I want. I will not get into anything - not names or anything," Zidane told Saturday's news conference.

"I talk to the club about the type of player I want, as I know that perfectly well, but not here."

Asked whether he had discussed Bale's future with the club's owners, Zidane replied: "We have not spoken about that, and we are just thinking about tomorrow's game, nothing else."

Madrid go into their clash with Athletic trailing second-placed Atletico Madrid by four points and having won just one of their past three LaLiga matches.

Zidane warned that his side's seventh-placed visitors, who beat Rayo Vallecano 3-2 last time out, would make life difficult for Madrid but backed his players to raise their game after a disappointing 1-1 draw at Leganes.

"Lately they have not lost many games and are playing much better than at the start of the season," said Zidane.

"A good team, Athletic have always been very difficult to play against, and tomorrow they will make it tough. But it's a good game for us to play well, play better.

"We have six games left to move this forward. We must play better before the season ends, to play well would be good for everyone. But in training we are getting better each week, and tomorrow we will try and show that on the pitch."

Zinedine Zidane does not believe that Karim Benzema has been affected by rumours that Real Madrid are looking to replace him for next season.

Benzema scored his fifth goal in four LaLiga fixtures - and 18th in total - on Monday, though it was only enough to secure a 1-1 draw away at Leganes.

The Frenchman has now netted Madrid's last five goals, yet media reports have suggested the club could bring in another striker in the next transfer window.

Zidane, however, insisted that he is thrilled with his compatriot's performances this term.

"He is playing a very good season, especially in terms of goals. In the end, he is a fantastic player and this year he has changed, which means more goals," he told a news conference.

"He's used to that, to the rumours that players are coming, but for him it does not change anything. He showed his personality and that's it, he's doing well for the team, he's doing a lot of goals. I'm happy."

However, one player who may well be heading for the Madrid exit door is Gareth Bale, who came on as a substitute with nine minutes remaining and left the field sharply at full-time, though Zidane defended the Welshman.

"You can ask every day and I'm going to answer you every day. He's an important player in the squad, I do not know how many matches he's played since I came in," Zidane said.

"He played three games out of four, I think. Today I wanted to make a change and that's it.

"In the end it's like Lucas [Vazquez], playing 10-15 minutes is complicated for them, but the changes are made to change the game and we did not."

Madrid sit in third place in the table, four points behind Atletico Madrid. They are next in action on Sunday when they face Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane refused to confirm whether Toni Kroos will still be at the club next season, stating "there will be changes" at the end of the campaign.

Kroos on Friday used Twitter to describe media reports he is planning to leave the club as "absolutely false information".

The Germany international has been a key player for Madrid since joining from Bayern Munich in 2014, with Los Blancos winning the Champions League in each of the last three seasons.

Madrid are expected to spend heavily in the transfer market following Zidane's return, with Premier League players Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen all reportedly targets, as well as Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

Kroos' first-team opportunities could be restricted by new arrivals and, while saying that he is a fan of the 29-year-old, Zidane could not confirm whether he would still be at the Santiago Bernabeu for 2019-20.  

Speaking ahead of Madrid's LaLiga clash with Leganes on Monday, Zidane said: "Toni is a key player. He's been at Madrid five years and has done great things.

"He's a great player that brings calm. I've always liked him. Everyone speaks about Toni, and other players, in terms of whether I want them or not.

"Every player is good and important. There will be changes but not right now, at the end of the season."

Another player whose future at the club remains unclear is Gareth Bale.

The Wales international has struggled to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo this season and appears likely to move on at the end of the campaign, although Bale's agent says he wants to stay.

Zidane would not be drawn on Bale's long-term future either, though, only saying he is expected to play an important role in the closing weeks of a season that is petering out for Madrid.

"There are seven games left," he said. "Let's see how we play. There will be changes but Gareth is part of the team."

Zidane's men are third in LaLiga, five points behind their city rivals Atletico Madrid, who eased past Celta Vigo 2-0 on Saturday.

Gareth Bale is not thinking of a return to the Premier League from Real Madrid, according to his agent, Jonathan Barnett.

Wales star Bale has been linked with a move back to England during a difficult sixth season in the Spanish capital.

The 29-year-old, who has scored 14 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions in 2018-19, was jeered by some fans during last week's unconvincing 2-1 LaLiga win over Eibar.

Zinedine Zidane, who returned as head coach last month, has so far been guarded on Bale's long-term future and refused to offer any guarantees that he will form part of his plans next term.

However, Barnett insists Bale does not want to leave the Santiago Bernabeu.

He told Deportes Cuatro: "He's very happy here. He's a Real Madrid player. Right now, he's not thinking about going back to England.

"I can't predict the future. But, for now, he's very happy."

Bale joined Madrid from Tottenham in 2013 for a reported €100million fee, a world record at the time.

He has won 13 major trophies in his time in Spain, including four Champions Leagues.

Manchester United and Chelsea have regularly been linked with a bid for the former Southampton man.

Zinedine Zidane showed little sympathy for Gareth Bale after he was jeered by Real Madrid fans in Saturday's underwhelming 2-1 win over Eibar.

Madrid, who lost to Valencia on Wednesday, were unimpressive once again and fell behind to Marc Cardona's goal six minutes before half-time at the Santiago Bernabeu.

They rallied after the break and ultimately won thanks to a Karim Benzema brace, but questions will again be asked of Los Blancos' performance.

Zidane has often been asked in recent weeks about the future of Bale and the Frenchman has done little to hush the stories claiming he wants to leave the club.

The Wales international was jeered during the match and Zidane hardly made an impassioned defence of his player afterwards.

When asked – again – if Bale will be at the club next season, Zidane told reporters: "We'll see.

"I will not say what will happen. He's at Madrid and he has two years left on his contract. It is not the time to talk about that.

"We do not rejoice at the jeers, but the fans want their team to do better."

With Madrid realistically out of title contention in LaLiga and eliminated from the Copa del Rey and Champions League, Zidane accepts it is difficult for his side to be motivated but insists they will not stop fighting for results. 

"In this situation, we will go out little by little, insisting on working and thinking positively," he said.

"This season we will not win anything, we already know in our heads. Playing for nothing is complicated.

"I'm not saying that we're going to quit and stop fighting. No, that's why the second half was very good, we took initiative. But thinking about the seven matches we have left, we will have to fight as a team."

Former Real Madrid striker Predrag Mijatovic doubts Gareth Bale can recapture his best form at Los Blancos as the Welsh star continues to be linked with a move away.

Bale – who was jeered by Madrid fans in Sunday's 3-2 win over lowly Huesca – was dropped to the bench for the 2-1 defeat to Valencia on Wednesday.

The former Tottenham winger is tipped to leave the Santiago Bernabeu, where his perceived failure to integrate with his team-mates off the field has been criticised.

While optimistic over Marcelo's future, Mijatovic – who won LaLiga and the Champions League during his time in the Spanish capital – was more sceptical about Bale.

"Marcelo is the vice-captain, he has spent many years at Real Madrid and he is the best left-back in history after Roberto Carlos," Mijatovic told Radio Marca.

"This year he had a bad season, that can happen to anyone, but he is a player that can recover his form.

"He can surely offer many things in the next few years, but I am not sure about Bale.

"He has had fewer years than Marcelo at the club, he is suffering, and I have the feeling that he has yet to adapt 100 per cent to Spanish life."

Back at the helm for his second spell in charge, head coach Zinedine Zidane – who quit last season following a third consecutive Champions League title – is expected to oversee a squad overhaul.

Paris Saint-Germain and France sensation Kylian Mbappe is reportedly at the top of Madrid's list of targets as they try to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo, having failed to defend their European crown and fallen 13 points behind LaLiga leaders Barcelona.

"Real Madrid and their fans would fancy having Mbappe one day, and he can surely go to Madrid, but you have to consider many things," he added. "I think that it would be impossible for this summer, but you never know.

"From my experience with Cristiano Ronaldo's signing, you have to work on that [preparing for a big signing] beforehand. You can't start in April and expect the player to arrive in July."

Gareth Bale did not earn explicit backing from Zinedine Zidane as the Real Madrid head coach stated he wants Raphael Varane and Marcelo to remain at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Bale was jeered during Madrid's fitful 3-2 LaLiga win over lowly Huesca on Sunday – the latest unhappy episode in an underwhelming season for the Wales international, who has seen a perceived failure to integrate with his team-mates off the field come under increasing scrutiny.

Zidane left Bale on the bench for last season's Champions League final against Liverpool, only for the forward to come on and produce a match-winning brace in the final game of the Frenchman's initial tenure.

The pre-match news conference for Wednesday's LaLiga trip to Valencia was dominated by questions over what lies beyond a season where Madrid are out of all cup competitions and 12 points adrift of Barcelona domestically.

"We have to respect all the players that are here, players who have done so much here," Zidane said.

"To talk about clearing out the squad is a lack of respect, I think.

"We're going to have some changes, yes, but it's not the time to talk about that now. I will tell you the same until the end of the season.

"I speak to the club, I've told the club what we want. We're already doing that. At the end of the season things will be made public."

On Bale's weekend ordeal, Zidane recalled his past at the hands of the Madrid faithful but offered no guarantees on the player's future.

"I know whistles, it's never good. You have to accept it. I was whistled," he added.

"You have to have the character for it and I think the players that are here have sufficient character to deal with it.

"We're talking about a difficult season but, when things were going well, people were here cheering everyone and that was great for us.

"Gareth's future and other players, we'll talk about that at the end of the season. We've got nine games left."

However, this noncommittal response jarred when set alongside Zidane's wishes for Varane to stay at Madrid.

France centre-back Varane has been linked to Manchester United and Juventus amid reports he is looking for a way out of the Spanish capital, but Zidane replied: "No, I do not want it. We do not want it.

"The important thing is what the player tells me and for the moment he is at the best club in the world. He knows that, he has won many things and he looks fine to me."

Marcelo fell out of favour under Zidane's predecessor Santiago Solari, with Sergio Reguilon regularly winning the nod at left-back.

But Zidane stated the Brazil star, another Los Blancos player rumoured to be a Juventus target, is his first choice.

"I really, really like him as a person – that doesn't matter – but as a player as well. What he's done here has been phenomenal up until now," he said.

"We will always need him, we want more from him. Recently he's been questioned but I like him a lot as a player and he will play more games."

Zidane added: "Let's not forget what Reguilon has done as well, who is the second choice left-back at the moment. He will play again before the end of the season."

Zinedine Zidane has refused to confirm whether Gareth Bale will be at Real Madrid next season but says he will play an important role in the closing weeks of the current campaign. 

Speculation over Bale's future at the Santiago Bernabeu has been rife during a season in which Madrid have struggled to cope following the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus.

Zidane did not want to be drawn on the Welshman's future at his media conference ahead of Sunday's home clash against Huesca, stating only that he is part of his plans for the remainder of 2018-19. 

"We are going to play these 10 games and then we will see," he said when asked about Bale.

"I will not talk about next season, we have 10 games left. Gareth is an important member of the squad, we know what he has done here, especially in the Champions League finals.

"Nobody can take away what he has done. We know he can bring a lot to the team and we will count on him."

Zidane was significantly more committal on the future of captain Sergio Ramos, insisting that the Spain international remains firmly part of his long-term plans.

"Sergio is our captain, our leader," he added. "Here is his home. He will play many more years than me, for sure, because he also takes care of himself.

"He is a very good professional and fundamental for this team and this club."

Rafael van der Vaart is unsure how much longer former team-mate Gareth Bale will last at Real Madrid amid criticism from the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

Bale has not always been a regular in the Madrid XI this season and his appearances were loudly jeered in the final weeks of Santiago Solari's unsuccessful tenure as the team's challenge faded in three competitions.

The Wales international was restored to the starting line-up and scored in Zinedine Zidane's first match back at the helm, but his future in Spain remains far from certain.

Bale openly discussed his desire to leave Madrid under the three-time Champions League-winning coach at the end of last season.

The former Tottenham winger must still win the fans back, too, and Van der Vaart, who played for both Madrid and Spurs, is unconvinced that Bale is cut out for the battle.

"Gareth is an amazing player but he's a person that has to feel the confidence," he told the Evening Standard. "He has to feel he is welcome.

"But I know Real is a difficult club if you don't perform. It doesn't matter if you're [Cristiano] Ronaldo, Bale or Van der Vaart – they'll throw you out after just one year.

"You have to deal with it – and I don't know if he can do that.

"I know him as a person and, with a Spurs hat, I always hope he'll say, 'OK, I'll come back'. I don't think it's going to happen, but that would be a nice story."

Musing over how Bale might turn the situation around, Van der Vaart suggested the 29-year-old needs to be more selfish.

"It's strange but, in Holland, we say that sometimes you need to be an a***hole," he said. "You can also be a positive a***hole.

"He's worth €100m – they paid a lot of money and he has to do it. In his last year at Spurs, he took every free-kick, he decided everything.

"That's what he has to do now. I realise it's difficult, because you have so many good players, but he should do it more."

Ryan Giggs hailed the blend of youth and experience that helped Wales earn a 1-0 win over Slovakia in the opening game of their European 2020 qualifier. 

Daniel James' goal after five minutes at Cardiff City Stadium proved to be decisive and the 21-year-old winger was the stand-out player throughout an afternoon on which Wales were worthy winners against Pavel Hapal's men.

While Gareth Bale was a closely marked man, James thrived on the space afforded to him and fellow youngsters David Brooks and Harry Wilson, who were also impressive. 

Giggs was satisfied after seeing his faith in his young players repaid, while the likes of Bale, Joe Allen and substitute Ashley Williams helped were on hand to add a little extra know-how.

"There were so many outstanding performances and we dug in at the end to get that clean sheet," Giggs told Sky Sports.

"In the first half we showed real composure. We rode our luck a little bit in the second half and I thought we could have scored a few more in the first but some of the play was fantastic, paired with great determination.

"We have got a great group of older players and younger players. We have got a lot of talent in the squad too so we will always create chances.

"It wasn't easy at the end but Ashley Williams came on to see us home and give us that experience."

Bale said Giggs' young charges have bought into the ethos that helped Wales reach Euro 2016, and underlined the importance of staying strong in defence.

"Everyone put in a shift," said the Real Madrid forward. "That's what we're used to now, the minimum requirement is you give 100 per cent.

"All the lads showed that – even the younger ones who weren't in the last campaigns.

"Even before the Euros and in the Euros, we built on a good solid defence and the whole team works hard together in units and we know we're always going to nick a goal. Today it was Dan and it was a great strike.

"It's what we needed. In the second half we came under a lot of pressure but we started the game well, got the early goal, and when we shut up shop we know how to do it."

Wales got their bid to qualify for Euro 2020 off to a winning start after Swansea City winger Daniel James scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Slovakia at Cardiff City Stadium. 

The 21-year-old struck after five minutes and Ryan Giggs' men rarely looked like losing against opponents they are expected to be vying with for a qualification spot from Group E. 

Croatia are tipped to top the group but after a performance in which the talents of James, David Brooks and Harry Wilson caught the eye more than those of Gareth Bale, Wales have every reason to look forward to a successful campaign. 

Wales coped admirably without the injured Aaron Ramsey as Giggs' well-drilled midfield kept the dangerous Marek Hamsik quiet to ensure they began with three points. 

The hosts took the lead when a burst of pace from Brooks put Slovakia on the back foot before James dispossessed Peter Pekarik on the edge of the box and rifled home with a powerful right-footed finish. 

Giggs' men did not let Slovakia settle, hassling and harrying them for possession and dominating the early exchanges, Brooks sending a first-time shot wide from 12 yards as they probed for a second. 

When the visitors did enjoy spells of possession, they came up against a packed Welsh defence. Brooks almost poached a goal on the counter-attack before the break, curling a shot narrowly wide from the corner of the penalty area. 

Slovakia went close through Albert Rusnak as Wales were tested early in the second half, the winger heading wide from six yards out, but James' pace was always a threat at the other end. 

The Swansea man pulled Slovakia's defence apart only for Brooks to drag his shot wide, but Slovakia goalkeeper Martin Dubravka was required to make a diving save to keep Wilson's angled drive out with 17 minutes left. 

There was a panicky moment for Wayne Hennessey when Rusnak's cross was headed goalwards from close range by substitute Michal Duris but the Crystal Palace keeper showed quick reactions, saving above his head to the relief of the home crowd. 
 

What does it mean?

Wales have now won three of their five competitive matches under Giggs and all of their last three opening matches in major qualifying campaigns.

Swans star shines in Cardiff

James possesses the wonderful combination of speed, close control and good finishing technique. On a day when Bale was a closely marked man, the Swansea forward provided a constant threat.

Hamsik short of his best

After moving to Chinese club Dalian Yifang in February, Hamsik looked off the pace. The playmaker lacked his usual poise and presence in Slovakia's midfield.

What's next?

Wales face Group E favourites Croatia in Zagreb on June 8 while Slovakia head to Azerbaijan three days later for a game they will feel is a must-win encounter.

Gareth Bale would be welcomed back to Tottenham should he choose to call time on his spell at Real Madrid, according to Spurs defender Ben Davies.

Speculation over Bale's future at Santiago Bernabeu has been rife during a season in which Madrid have struggled to cope following the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus.

Bale dazzled at Tottenham before moving to Spain, and his Wales team-mate Davies said he would relish the chance to play alongside his country's leading scorer on a more regular basis.

"He's come under a bit of flak at Madrid recently, but for Wales he's always been brilliant," Davies told reporters ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia.

"I'm always going to say it's unfair, he is one of the best players in the world, we see it every day in training.

"I'd definitely have him at Tottenham. But I don't know how likely that is."

Wales beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 in a friendly ahead of their clash with Slovakia, though Bale is not the only player to have impressed Davies during the international break. 

Ryan Giggs named David Brooks, Harry Wilson, Ben Woodburn and Daniel James in his squad, with their quality leaving Davies optimistic about Wales' long-term future. 

"If you look at the options we've got now, we definitely have a lot more up there," said the defender. 

"In the past, we only had Gareth with that pace, but we're lucky to be blessed with it now. 

"It's a good position to be in as a squad, the younger players will want to show what they can do when they get the chance of a regular place – that's the competition you want." 

Gareth Bale says he is raring to go for Wales and has denied injury problems have played a part in a difficult season at Real Madrid.

The LaLiga giants have reappointed Zinedine Zidane - with whom Bale had a difficult relationship - after Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari both failed at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Bale was a surprise starter and found the net as Madrid beat struggling Celta Vigo 2-0 in Zidane's first game back in charge, with the similarly recalled Isco also on the scoresheet.

It was only Bale's 17th LaLiga start of the campaign, with the Wales forward having struggled to nail down a regular place in the Madrid team this season.

Yet ahead of Ryan Giggs' side starting their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign at home to Slovakia, Bale dismissed any lingering fitness concerns.

"I've only had one injury, I've been fine," Bale told reporters on Saturday. "I have been playing, I've scored a decent amount of goals.

"We want to be playing in the major tournaments and experience what we have been through.

"We need to produce again, we need to work hard as a team. I am ready, I am raring to go."

While Bale is available despite sitting out a warm-up against Trinidad and Tobago, Aaron Ramsey will miss the Slovakia game due to injury.

"Obviously it's a big blow for us," Bale said of the Arsenal midfielder, who is set to join Juventus. "He's a big player for us and we'll obviously miss him.

"But it gives someone else a chance to step in and do a good job, and hopefully help the team to a win."

Slovakia won their first Group E game 2-0 against Hungary while World Cup finalists Croatia also made a winning start, triumphing 2-1 at home to Azerbaijan.

"We are going for top spot, I don't know why we wouldn't," Bale added. "We are always the underdogs. The bookies aren't always right. We are going to go into this campaign looking to win the group.

"We know both countries got off to a winning start the other day but there is no reason why we can't. There's no reason why we can't go on and win the group."

Gareth Bale has moved to deny rumours he had a bad relationship with former Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo.

The duo, once the most expensive two players in football, played alongside one another at the Santiago Bernabeu between 2013 and 2018 but were said to have a poor rapport prior to the Portuguese's transfer to Juventus.

However, the Wales star now says he relished playing with his former team-mate despite the rumours to the contrary.

"Cristiano is an incredible player, I thoroughly enjoyed playing with him," he said on a segment of BT Sport's What I Wore series.

"Obviously the media try and hype all these problems which were never there. We got on really well. An incredible player, what he did for the club and the amount of goals he scored, and he’s still going now."

Reflecting on his career, Bale picked out his two goals in last season's Champions League final, one of them a spectacular bicycle kick, as highlights, and revealed that being left on the bench for the Kiev showpiece inspired his match-winning cameo.

"Going into the final, I'd been playing really well and scoring a lot of goals and I felt kind of angry that I wasn't starting because I felt like I deserved it," he added.

"Coming on in the final I had a bit of anger and that spurred me on to score such a good goal, and even take on the second shot from such a distance."

Bale was the subject of a €100million deal to take him to Madrid from Tottenham in 2013 and opened up on how he felt at the time.

"My unveiling at the stadium – there was about 40, 50,000 people there and I was just like, 'Oh god'," he said.

"I appreciated everything Tottenham had done for me but I think they did understand at the time that when such a big club like Real Madrid comes calling, it is difficult to turn them down. You have to take it in your stride. You just have to try your best, give it a go and enjoy the experience."

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