Zinedine Zidane took full responsibility for a dreadful defeat to Valencia on Sunday as Real Madrid conceded four goals in a LaLiga match for the first time under their title-winning coach.

Valencia ran out 4-1 winners at Mestalla after Carlos Soler became the first player to score a hat-trick of penalties in a single LaLiga game in the 21st century.

Soler's treble – the first from a Valencia player in the top flight since September 2017 – was added to by an own goal from Raphael Varane, who deflected Maxi Gomez's cross beyond Thibaut Courtois. Madrid's goalkeeper had initially saved Valencia's first penalty, which was retaken due to an infringement from Yunus Musah.

Madrid started brightly and led through Karim Benzema's brilliant opener but conceded four goals in a league match for the first time since a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in October 2018 – the result which cost Julen Lopetegui his job.

Zidane, who Lopetegui replaced, accepted the blame for this Madrid display, acknowledging they must solve their defensive problems having conceded 14 goals in seven games in all competitions since returning from October's international break.

"Three penalties, an own goal, it's too much," said Zidane, whose side are fourth, four points behind leaders Real Sociedad.

"The fault is mine because I am the coach and I have to find the solution. I can't justify what happened. It's a bad day, there are no excuses. We must improve defensively.

"I don't think Valencia have been tactically better than us. The only thing is that we started well and everything changed after the goal. 

"This is difficult to understand. But yes, the maximum responsibility is mine. We must find solutions after the goal they scored."

While Madrid's defence endured a collective nightmare, with Varane scoring his second own goal in the space of five appearances in all competitions, playmaker Isco was equally disappointing at the other end.

Starting for the first time in LaLiga since October 17 – when Madrid lost 1-0 to Cadiz – the 28-year-old had just one shot and created only a single chance before he was taken off in the 83rd minute. Isco has played a meagre two key passes all season.

Zidane defended the player, however, saying: "Isco has tried, he has done well like everyone else. In the end, everyone loses, there is not just one guilty party."

Madrid were without holding midfielder Casemiro who, like Eden Hazard, is isolating after testing positive for coronavirus.

The champions have won just one of the six LaLiga fixtures in which Casemiro has not started since the start of last season, but Zidane insisted the Brazilian's absence was no excuse.

"We can look for a thousand things – you don't have to look for excuses," he said. "They are all Madrid players."

Eden Hazard and Casemiro have tested positive for COVID-19, Real Madrid have confirmed. 

The club announced the news on Saturday, having carried out the latest round of tests on Friday. 

Hazard and Casemiro were the only two found to have contracted coronavirus, with the rest of the squad and staff given the all-clear. 

"Real Madrid CF announces that our players Casemiro and Hazard have given positive results in the COVID-19 tests carried out Friday morning," read a club statement. 

"All the other players and the coaching staff of the first team, as well as all the club employees who work directly with them, gave negative results in that same test carried out yesterday.  

"Likewise, it is confirmed again that all, with the exception of Casemiro and Hazard, have given negative results in the antigen tests carried out this morning." 

Zinedine Zidane's side face Valencia on Sunday after enjoying a 3-2 Champions League win over Inter in midweek, with both Hazard and Casemiro in the starting XI for that European fixture. 

Former Chelsea star Hazard ended a year-long goal drought against Huesca in Madrid's previous LaLiga outing, a 4-1 home win.

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes the team's shock LaLiga defeat to Cadiz is a good wake-up call heading into their Champions League opener and El Clasico showdown against Barcelona.

Defending champions and LaLiga leaders Madrid suffered a surprise 1-0 loss to newly promoted Cadiz on Saturday.

Madrid succumbed to Anthony Lozano's 16th-minute effort, after Luka Jovic had a goal ruled out and Karim Benzema hit the crossbar.

It was Madrid's first loss of the 2020-21 season and first to Cadiz since 1991 as they prepare for Wednesday's Champions League clash with Shakhtar Donetsk and Saturday's Clasico at Camp Nou.

"A defeat is always a good thing because it gives you a wake-up call to get back down to work, realise the things we're doing badly and to improve," Courtois said post-match.

"We shouldn't attach too much importance to it. It's a defeat, in particular you've got to win your home games, but the games now come thick and fast and we'll have to put in a good performance against Shakhtar, win the match and head to the Camp Nou in confident mood."

"We'll have to analyse the match and take a look at things," Courtois added. "Our first-half performance was very poor, I was called into action three or four times, we weren't winning our individual battles and they were better than us in virtually every department.

"The gaffer made changes at the break and we were better in the second half, but we failed to score because they're a very well-organised side who defend very well. It's really tough when you go behind to teams like that.
 
"We'll have to talk about it tomorrow [Sunday] between ourselves. Besides yesterday's session, all 20 of us haven't trained together and with the international matches it's difficult to get everyone together to train, but that's no excuse."

Madrid midfielder Casemiro added: "We worked hard and fought, but they played better than us in the first-half. In the second-half we pressured higher up and we had more control of the game, but Cadiz is a quality side and we gifted them the game in the first-half.

"We have to look at the mistakes, but the attitude in the first-half was not good enough and we've lost three points against a very organised side who knew exactly what they had to do on the pitch. We have to forget about it because we now have a Champions League week and it's important for us to start well as it's a very long and hard week."

Madrid remain top of LaLiga on goal difference ahead of Getafe – who stunned Barca – Cadiz and Granada.

Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar is doubtful for Brazil's opening World Cup 2022 qualifier against Bolivia with a back injury.

Footage on social media this week showed Neymar putting his hand on his lower back and keeling on the floor in pain during a training session.

He was unable to train on Thursday and Tite is now preparing to be without his key man for Friday's clash in Sao Paulo, with Flamengo's Everton Ribeiro on standby.

Brazil's team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar confirmed a decision will be made on Neymar's availability on Friday and Tite added: "We will have to wait and see.

"If we are without Neymar then it will be Everton in his place."

Brazil are already without goalkeeper Alisson and striker Gabriel Jesus but Tite still has a deep squad to choose from for the double-header with Bolivia and Peru.

Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro will captain the side in the absence of Dani Alves, who is regaining fitness after an injury layoff, while Weverton and Douglas Luiz will also start.

"The captain for tomorrow's game is Casemiro," Tite said. "He is one of the captains, one of the leaders we have.

"We have three great goalkeepers but Weverton has played at a high level.

"Douglas Luiz is another. We want to give him greater freedom to attack from the left side. He needs to be able to supply the man up front."

Brazil will belatedly get their qualifying campaign up and running after the first four rounds of fixtures were called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Selecao won the 2019 Copa America but have advanced past the quarter-final stage of the World Cup just once since 2002, when they won the fifth of their titles.

That occasion was on home soil in 2014, in which they suffered a humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany.

"It is about enjoying the pressure," Tite said at his pre-match news conference on Thursday. "It is my responsibility to make decisions and win titles.

"I have the opportunity to be a world champion with Brazil. But this is a team under construction."

Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro said playing behind closed doors at Manchester City can help the LaLiga holders overturn their Champions League deficit.

Madrid travel to Etihad Stadium for the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Pep Guardiola's City on Friday, having lost the opener 2-1 prior to the coronavirus-enforced break.

Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne condemned Madrid – who had captain Sergio Ramos sent off in the Spanish capital – to defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu in February.

Madrid have a mountain to climb in Manchester, but star Casemiro believes Zinedine Zidane's side can benefit from playing without fans on the road.

"Without fans it's a different game," Brazil international Casemiro told Esporte Interactivo.

"It will be a very good game and difficult for both sides, but we're Real Madrid and we know we have a chance to go through.

"They won't have their fans and that might favour us a little.

"But the players are the same, the coach is the same and we all know that the difficulty level will be the same because they're a great team."

 

Casemiro was unsurprised by Karim Benzema's incredible assist in Real Madrid's 1-0 win over Espanyol in LaLiga on Sunday.

Benzema produced a moment of magic to set up Casemiro as Madrid moved two points clear at the top of LaLiga.

The forward's 117th assist of his Madrid career came via an outrageous backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa to give Casemiro a simple finish.

Casemiro said he knew Benzema was capable of such brilliance, paying tribute to the 32-year-old.

"What Karim did, for me is normal. We all know that the qualities he has aren't of a number nine, but of a number 10," the midfielder said.

"I know him, I know how he plays and the quality he possesses. I asked for the ball in space, and his backheel pass was incredible.

"It's Karim's goal. It's the backheel pass of a number 10 and you have to congratulate him."

With six games remaining, Madrid are on track to win LaLiga, holding a two-point lead over rivals Barcelona.

Casemiro is eager to help deliver Madrid a first LaLiga title since 2016-17.

"There is still a lot left, but we know that each match is a final," he said. "We want this league."

Madrid are next in action with a clash against Getafe on Thursday.

Real Madrid star Karim Benzema said he knew Casemiro was waiting on his ingenious match-winning assist against Espanyol, explaining: "I see football like that!"

Benzema stole the show as LaLiga leaders Madrid moved two points clear of bitter rivals Barcelona atop the table with a 1-0 win over bottom side Espanyol on Sunday.

At the end of a first half in which Madrid had hammered on the door without finding a way past former goalkeeper Diego Lopez, Benzema came up with a moment of sublime skill.

Benzema played a backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa to grant Casemiro a simple finish for the decisive goal on the stroke of half-time.

"It was a good play, but the most important thing is the goal afterwards," Benzema said afterwards. "Casemiro gets it right. We are very happy."

Pressed on the piece of skill, the French forward added: "I see football like that! I knew Casemiro was coming from behind."

The goal was as important as it was arresting, as Madrid capitalised on Barca's failure to beat lowly Celta Vigo on Saturday.

"Of course we look at what Barca do, even though we are very focused on us," Benzema said. "I am not going to talk about Barca, but we are fine.

"We go from match to match and each game is a final for the LaLiga title.

"We are happy and we wanted to win. We left very psyched to get three points to take home."

Madrid have won all five of their matches since LaLiga resumed in June following the coronavirus-enforced break.

Zinedine Zidane's in-form Madrid play host to Getafe in the Spanish capital on Thursday.

Karim Benzema earned lofty praise after his sensational assist teed up the decisive goal in Real Madrid's 1-0 win at Espanyol.

Casemiro grabbed the only goal at RCDE Stadium to send Madrid two points clear at the top of LaLiga, yet the 45th-minute strike owed almost everything to the skill of Benzema.

The former France international's 117th assist of his Madrid career came via an outrageous backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa to give Casemiro a simple finish.

The stunning touch swiftly prompted comparisons to ex-Madrid great Guti, who famously teed up Benzema for an open goal with a similarly stunning touch against Deportivo La Coruna in 2010.

As clips were shared of both goals on social media, Guti joined in the conversation to praise his former team-mate.

Sharing a picture of his own assist, the 43-year-old tagged Benzema and posted a series of clapping emojis.

"Magic, friend," he wrote. "Brutal."

Real Madrid moved two points clear at the top of LaLiga on Sunday, capitalising on Barcelona's draw at Celta Vigo by beating the Espanyol 1-0.

Zinedine Zidane's men led the league by virtue of their superior head-to-head record going into the weekend and were boosted by Celta's late equaliser against Barca on Saturday.

Madrid made sure not to pass up the opportunity to build a gap at the summit as Casemiro scored following a wonderful Karim Benzema assist in an entertaining if ultimately narrow away victory.

The capital club have control of the title race with just six matches remaining, although it was not all one-way traffic at RCDE Stadium despite bottom side Espanyol's accommodating defending.

Madrid looked similarly shaky at times in the first half as Sergi Darder saw an early deflected shot trickle wide before Wu Lei wastefully blasted over.

Former Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez scrambled to keep out an ambitious Casemiro attempt and watched both Sergio Ramos and the Brazil international head over, the captain missing the target from point-blank range.

Benzema was next to try his luck and draw a save from Lopez, whose busy outing continued with a double stop from Casemiro and Eden Hazard in a goalmouth scramble prompted by his own failure to deal with a high cross.

Casemiro's fifth effort before half-time finally evaded Lopez to break the deadlock, though, as Benzema teed up his team-mate with a cute backheel through Bernardo Espinosa's legs.

Madrid's momentum was slowed by the break, yet subsequent speculative Espanyol efforts from distance did not cause Thibaut Courtois significant concern as another win was sealed.


What does it mean? Madrid reinvigorated since restart

Defeat to Real Betis in March saw Madrid hand pole position back to Barcelona, but the coronavirus pandemic swiftly prompted the suspension of the season.

Zidane's side have entertained since the restart and could have run up a handsome scoreline against Espanyol. Crucially, though, they have won five straight matches, striking a balance between style and substance, while Barca have twice dropped points.

Casemiro in control

Nominally a holding midfielder, Casemiro provided Madrid's chief attacking threat in the first half. He appeared to be involved in each and every attack and deserved a goal long before it arrived courtesy of a gorgeous piece of skill from Benzema that meant, this time, Casemiro could not miss.

Wu wide of the mark

Madrid may have given up more chances than usual in recent weeks, but opponents must still make sure to take their opportunities when they arrive. Wu's profligacy saw Espanyol fail to do so. He should have hit the target when well placed in the first half and then aimed a tame shot into Courtois' clutches shortly after the break.

What's next?

Madrid host stuttering Getafe on Thursday, the same day Espanyol's unlikely bid to avoid the drop takes them to Real Sociedad.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is out of contract in June 2021 and the Gabon international is no closer to signing a new Arsenal deal.

The former Borussia Dortmund star is not short of suitors amid uncertainty over his future in London.

And Real Madrid are reportedly making their move.

 

T OP STORY – MADRID TELL ARSENAL TO DECIDE OVER AUBA

Real Madrid have set Arsenal a deadline as they look to sign star forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, according to The Mirror.

Aubameyang is out of contract in June 2021 and the Gabon international has been tipped to leave Arsenal.

Madrid reportedly want Arsenal to make a decision on Aubameyang's future by June 15 as the likes of Inter and Paris Saint-Germain also circle.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sport reports Barcelona are on the brink of signing Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic. The LaLiga giants are close to agreeing a four-year deal with the Bosnia-Herzegovina international.

- Pjanic had been mentioned in a possible swap deal with Barca's Arthur, who has previously dismissed an exit. However, Tuttosport claims Juventus have not given up on signing Arthur.

- Former RB Leipzig boss Ralf Rangnick is set to become head coach of Milan, reports Calciomercato.

- The Express says Manchester United have identified Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek as a top transfer target. Van de Beek has also been linked to Madrid and Juve.

Madrid want Casemiro to continue at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Mundo Deportivo reports the futures of captain Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Lucas Vazquez and James Rodriguez are up in the air.

- According to The Sun, Borussia Dortmund want to sign Chelsea teenager Charlie Webster.

Inter have set their sights on Freiburg centre-back Robin Koch, reports Tuttomercatoweb. Koch has also been linked to Napoli and Benfica.

United are keeping tabs on Swansea City defender Joe Rodon, says The Mirror. The Red Devils have already raided Swansea previously, signing Welshman Daniel James ahead of the 2019-20 season.

With Real Madrid reportedly eyeing Eduardo Camavinga, could the Rennes midfielder prove a fine deputy to Casemiro?

Camavinga, 17, is said to have attracted interest from Europe's biggest clubs, including Madrid.

Marca reported on Sunday that the teenage midfielder was a preference for Madrid as coach Zinedine Zidane wants to avoid being too reliant on 28-year-old Casemiro.

Camavinga would surely not be expected to match Casemiro immediately, but rather provide Zidane with a back-up option while learning from the 46-time Brazil international.

Using Opta data, we take a look at how Camavinga and Casemiro compare in Ligue 1 and LaLiga respectively this season.

 

Casemiro busy for busier Madrid

Casemiro and Camavinga have each made 25 league appearances this season, although the former has played 108 more minutes.

Yet, while Camavinga narrowly edges Casemiro for passing accuracy (87.7 to 83.8), including more notably in the opposition half (83.3 to 78.8), the Madridista has played 1,521 passes to the Angola-born midfielder's 975. That includes making 379 into the final third, compared to Camavinga's 141. Those numbers must also be put into perspective with Madrid averaging 58.2 per cent possession in LaLiga this season, while third-placed Rennes have averaged 49.7 per cent in Ligue 1.

More to come from Camavinga in attack

Goals from midfield are a bonus and Casemiro has struck three times in the league for Real Madrid this season, while Camavinga has netted once for a less prolific Rennes. Casemiro has also taken more shots (26 to 10) and had more 'big chances' (four to one), while creating two to Camavinga's one. Both players have provided two assists in the league this season.

Plenty for Rennes' teenage star to learn

Casemiro is widely regarded as one of the world's best midfielders, and Camavinga could learn plenty from the Brazilian. Casemiro has 218 recoveries in the league this season to Camavinga's 147, but Rennes man has a slight edge in duel success (57.5 to 55.7). Camavinga has won more tackles (64 to 55), Casemiro has a better success rate (66.3 to 61) and more interceptions (53 to 44), while neither has made an error leading to a shot this season. At 17, Camavinga is supremely talented, and he could thrive given the chance to develop alongside Casemiro.

Casemiro admitted Real Madrid's loss to Real Betis could cost them the LaLiga title.

Madrid were stunned in a 2-1 defeat on Sunday, leaving them second to rivals Barcelona in the table with 11 matches remaining.

Casemiro said it could be the result that denies Madrid, who are two points adrift of Barca, the league title.

"They were superior and played better, there is no excuse, football is simple," the midfielder said, via the club's website.

"In LaLiga every game is difficult. To win LaLiga we have to play well in every game and we didn't play well.

"We have to keep working hard, we have not been up to the task and we have not played like we did against Barcelona.

"We are human too, but it could cost us the league title. We have to look at Eibar now."

While Karim Benzema's penalty cancelled out Sidnei's opener in the first half, Cristian Tello scored an 82nd-minute winner for Betis.

Madrid defender Raphael Varane urged his team to continue fighting late in the campaign.

"We lacked a lot of intensity, especially in the first half. We didn't play at the pace we wanted to and we let the opponents have the ball," he said.

"We're dropping important points, but we're confident we can fight until the end.

"We're trying very hard to get back to the top of the league and today was a drop in quality from everyone.

"We still have a lot of games left to play and we're confident we're going to get that intensity back."

Casemiro pinpointed a drop in intensity as the reason for Real Madrid's 2-1 Champions League loss to Manchester City – but remains confident they can still overturn the first-leg deficit.

Madrid appeared on course to take an advantage to the Etihad Stadium when Isco put them ahead on the hour mark at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.

However, Gabriel Jesus' header levelled matters for City before Kevin De Bruyne completed the turnaround from the penalty spot.

Sergio Ramos was sent off four minutes from the end of normal time, meaning Madrid will be without their captain for a return leg on March 17 in which they will need to score at least twice to progress.

Midfielder Casemiro is optimistic Madrid can still achieve that difficult task, having pinpointed exactly where they went wrong on home turf.

"The explanation is obvious," he told Movistar

"We did 75 minutes really well and then we didn't have any intensity, we lost control of the game, we sat back and they are a great rival, they attacked twice and scored.

"There's no excuse. At the weekend we've got a tough game against Barcelona. We need to start thinking about that."

On the second leg, he added: "If there's one team capable to turning this around it's Real Madrid.

"But I think what's important is that we played really well for 75 minutes, against a great side, and for 15 minutes we didn't do what we had to. And they came back to win.

"It's not over, but there's a lot of work ahead."

Zinedine Zidane believes it was the right decision to rule out a Luuk de Jong goal in Real Madrid's 2-1 victory over Sevilla on Saturday.

Madrid moved top of LaLiga as two goals from Casemiro secured all three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, despite De Jong having briefly made it 1-1 in the second half.

The striker thought he had given Sevilla the lead half an hour in, but his header was disallowed following a VAR check, with referee Juan Martinez Munuera instead penalising Nemanja Gudelj for blocking Eder Militao in the build-up.

Sevilla head coach Julen Lopetegui was aghast at the decision and director of football Monchi claimed he would have taken the team off the pitch had they seen a goal disallowed for a second time when VAR was used to check a possible handball by Munir El Haddadi.

Zidane, though, sees little reason to feel the decisions changed the game.

"What I can say is that I saw the incident and it's a block, there's a foul, the referee saw it on VAR, and he gave the foul," the Madrid boss told reporters.

"For the second, there's a hand, he doesn't give it. I can't explain anything, and I never get into evaluating these things. It's for the referee to decide.

"Sometimes these things go against you and sometimes in your favour. It's a difficult job. It's for them to decide.

"For me, there's a block, it's a foul and it's really normal."

When asked about Monchi's comments, Zidane replied: "I don't think the referee was that decisive. He did what he had to do.

"There's a hand for their goal, but that wasn't given. What can I say? I'm not going to get into it.

"It's a complicated game for everyone. We played against a good team, but the result is logical for what happened on the pitch.

"What he said is his responsibility. It's not for me to say anything. In the end, it's the referee who decides.

"What he said seems a little strong to me, but I'm not going to prevent the Sevilla sporting director from speaking."

Zidane went on to praise the performance of Casemiro, who proved Madrid's unlikely hero by scoring twice in the same game for the first time in his career with the club.

"Good, because in the end he got two goals and that's not usual," he said of Casemiro's performance. "I'm happy for him. We can make the difference in attack with any player."

If Real Madrid end the season as LaLiga champions, they may well look back on this win over Sevilla – and the performance of Casemiro – as a defining moment.

This was a game that had the hallmarks of a setback for Zinedine Zidane. Okay, Madrid had beaten Sevilla in 10 consecutive league games in the capital going into this meeting, but Julen Lopetegui has created an obstinacy about the Andalusians that had restricted them to just three away defeats in all competitions this term.

Consider, too, that Madrid went to penalties in the Supercopa de Espana final six days ago before the long flight back from Jeddah. They also started this game without a sizeable host of first-team stars: captain Sergio Ramos was out with a sprained ankle, Eden Hazard, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale were not in the squad, Federico Valverde was banned and Karim Benzema only able to start on the bench.

Still, one thing about the modern Madrid is that they generally perform to a far higher standard when Casemiro is on the pitch, so maybe this kind of match-winning display was bound to happen eventually. Few would have seen this coming, though.

Zidane has made Madrid extremely tough to score against in recent weeks. They had kept five clean sheets in nine games before Sevilla's visit and conceded only 12 goals in LaLiga all season, a record only matched by, of course, Atletico Madrid.

But they found themselves in trouble on Saturday. Without Ramos to dictate terms from the back, Sevilla's high press had them worried; with a depleted attack, chances of their own were scarce. Luuk de Jong thought he had buried the opening goal just before the half-hour mark only for VAR to intervene and penalise Nemanja Gudelj for blocking Eder Militao.

Amid the uncertainty of their wider display, Casemiro was doing as expected. He made five tackles and won possession 11 times in the match, more than any other player on the pitch, and only Diego Carlos bettered his tally of two interceptions.

Then came the surprise. With 57 minutes gone, Luka Jovic played an inspired backheel into Casemiro's path, he muscled his way through the Sevilla box and chipped an impudent effort beyond Tomas Vaclik. It was a striker's finish, oozing calm and precision – two qualities not always associated with one of Madrid's more ebullient characters.

Twelve minutes later, it happened again.

De Jong had equalised with a finish of the highest quality – a rare incident this season. Five minutes on, Lucas Vazquez sent in a cross and the unmarked Casemiro rose highest and nodded home his second goal of the game. Even rarer.

Casemiro had never scored twice in a Madrid match before and he cannot have ended many games with no team-mate having attempted more shots. Indeed, he could have had a hat-trick but for a miscued effort in the closing stages.

Casemiro is hardly an unsung hero at the Santiago Bernabeu, but this was a rescue act in a very different guise, his impact in the opponent's box even more important than his tigerish efforts in defending his own.

It means Madrid are unbeaten in 17 games in all competitions and return to the top of the table ahead of Barcelona's game against Granada on Sunday. With their form showing few signs of dipping and with stars aplenty to return, this might prove to be Casemiro's most decisive performance yet.

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