Eden Hazard made his return from a three-month injury lay-off in Real Madrid's 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo, with Thibaut Courtois confident the forward will be key for Zinedine Zidane's side.

An ankle injury sidelined Hazard in late November, but he made his comeback on Sunday, winning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Madrid 2-1 up in the second half.

Madrid's run of five straight LaLiga wins was ended by Santi Mina's 85th-minute leveller, though, to ensure they only moved one point clear of Clasico rivals Barcelona at the top of the table.

However, the return of Hazard, who has scored just once in nine league games since joining from Chelsea ahead of this season, was seen as an encouraging development for his compatriot Courtois.

"Little by little he will catch up again after three months," Courtois, who also played alongside Hazard at Stamford Bridge, told Movistar.

"He is a player that is worth a lot to us."

Madrid surprisingly fell behind against Celta after Fedor Smolov scored his first goal for the club in the seventh minute.

The home side failed to muster a shot on target across the opening 45 minutes, but Toni Kroos' sixth goal against Celta – he only has 14 overall in LaLiga - levelled matters and Hazard then won a penalty that Ramos scored.

Yet more poor defending allowed substitute Denis Suarez to find fellow replacement Mina as Celta dramatically claimed a share of the spoils.

Asked about his emotions, Courtois replied: "Angry because we conceded a [second] goal.

"It was a difficult game because they started by scoring a goal early on. They defended well with 11 men and then I made a good save to keep the score at 0-1.

"Then in the second half, we scored two fast goals but in the end we've lost two points that are worth a lot at home.

"We defended well but Denis made a good turn and made space for Santi Mina, who put the ball away well.

"It's two points lost and that leaves a bad taste in the mouth."

Diego Simeone appeared to have perfected a defence-first approach at Atletico Madrid.

However, Zinedine Zidane's work with Real Madrid this season has seemingly been based on the same philosophy and is reaping far greater rewards.

LaLiga leaders Madrid will hope to open a six-point lead over Barcelona when they entertain local rivals Atletico at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

With the help of Opta, we look at the impressive numbers behind Los Blancos' miserly defence.

 

A sluggish start

It was not an ideal start for Zidane when he returned for a second stint as coach last March.

A 4-1 win over Real Valladolid was not enough for Santiago Solari to keep his job following back-to-back home defeats to Barcelona and a shock Champions League last-16 exit to Ajax.

Zidane struggled to find consistency in the closing stages of the season and only managed five wins in his 11 LaLiga games at the helm.

During that time frame, Madrid appeared to increasingly struggle defensively. They saw their average goals conceded per game rise from 1.19 to 1.27 and they faced 0.5 more shots per game (up to 4.09 from 3.59).

 

Tightening up

Madrid kept just three clean sheets under Zidane last season, but they are already up to 11 in 21 LaLiga games this term. That is one more than Atletico.

Having let in 14 goals as Zidane saw out the end of the 2018-19 campaign, they have improved dramatically with just 13 put past them this term – the fewest of any teams in the top five European leagues and their best record after 21 matches since 1988.

Madrid's expected goals conceded is 19.75, meaning they have let in 6.75 fewer than anticipated, highlighting some good work from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The only teams in LaLiga with a better differential this season are Real Valladolid (-10.11) and Levante (-7.44), but they conceded more than Madrid at 24 and 32 respectively.

Greater defensive work has seen the number of shots Madrid are facing decrease from 9.91 per game under Zidane last term – and 10.24 across the whole campaign – to 8.48, a tally only Getafe (7.57) and Manchester City (7.63) have faced fewer than in the top five European leagues.

When only efforts that hit the target are taken into account, Madrid have been troubled by just 2.62 every 90 minutes this season – the lowest in the continent's leading divisions. Atletico face just 2.86 per match.

 

Attack as a form of defence?

Madrid have seen their average possession dip slightly since Zidane took over, but it has remained at just above 58 per cent under the Frenchman.

They are seemingly reaping the rewards of playing with greater intensity higher up the pitch – they have won possession in the final third 5.38 times per game this season, an increase from 4.09 in Zidane's first 11 games in charge.

Madrid are averaging more shots than any team in LaLiga at 17.89 per game, with 6.43 of those hitting the target – another league high.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez described head coach Zinedine Zidane as a "blessing from heaven" after his latest final triumph.

Zidane has won each of his finals as Madrid coach, taking his tally of successes to nine with a tense victory against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana on Sunday.

Madrid won 4-1 on penalties after a goalless draw, scraping to a shoot-out after Federico Valverde was sent off for a cynical foul on a goalbound Alvaro Morata late in extra time.

This was the first title of Zidane's second stint as Madrid boss - the first returning three straight Champions League wins - but Perez is confident the Frenchman is ready to deliver further success.

"[Zidane] has plenty of trophies and we're very happy for him," Perez said, as reported by Marca. "I hope that he wins more trophies.

"Zidane has a loving relationship with Real Madrid. He decided to rest for a year and now he's returned with renewed energy. Zidane is a blessing from heaven."

Perez felt the triumph at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah was particularly impressive given the absence of a number of key men, including Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.

"We came here without some great players like Hazard, Benzema and Bale," he said. "Zidane has been able to put together a team and we won the trophy.

"I think that we're on the path to finding ourselves again after a little dip. New people have come in who have given the team intensity and we're on a good path."

But Perez reserved some praise for goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who saved from Thomas Partey in the shoot-out.

"We brought [Courtois] here because we believe that he's the best goalkeeper in the world, and he has been," Perez said. "He was one of the key players in the victory."

Thibaut Courtois revealed a late review of Atletico Madrid's penalties helped him step up for Real Madrid in their Supercopa de Espana victory on Sunday.

Madrid claimed the trophy for an 11th time thanks to a 4-1 penalty shootout win after the derby clash finished locked at 0-0 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saul Niguez hit the post for Atletico in the shootout before Courtois denied Thomas Partey, continuing his improved form for the LaLiga giants.

Courtois said he was always confident of saving Thomas' penalty, while he was happy with another clean sheet.

"I reviewed the penalties on the bench," the goalkeeper said, via AS.

"Saul surprised me a little, but Thomas I knew clearly. He shot it very hard and very strong.

"I am very happy for another zero goals conceded and with good stops. This is very important."

Madrid were reduced to 10 men late in extra time when Federico Valverde cynically brought down Alvaro Morata, who was through on goal.

Courtois praised his team, who host Sevilla in LaLiga on Saturday, for making the most of Valverde's tackle.

"We are very happy. It was a hard-fought match against Atletico. Their style of play is waiting for an error from the other team," he said.

"They could have taken advantage of that a few times. I managed to save some, Fede stopped one.

"I think I could stop Alvaro by coming out, but he got away and Fede made the tackle. We took advantage of that well and we were the more confident team in the penalty shootout."

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."

Thibaut Courtois insisted there was never any internal strain on his relationship with Keylor Navas, though he acknowledged there is now much less focus on the Real Madrid goalkeeping situation following the latter's move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Navas completed a switch to PSG in September, with Alphonse Areola moving in the opposite direction to Madrid on loan.

Last season, both Courtois and Navas competed for the number one spot at Madrid, with the media and fans often debating over which one should be named as number one choice.

Now, those debates have been settled, with France goalkeeper Areola acting as Courtois' understudy, but the former Chelsea shot-stopper affirmed there were no issues between himself and Navas.

"In the end it is like in life. With some you have better relationships and you talk more," Courtois told MARCA.

"He was a partner and there was always a good I try to help them both. The fact that it is no longer helped me.

"I think it is more that there is no longer that debate from outside, because from inside we were two goalkeepers that we trained well competing, as now with Areola who is a great goalkeeper.

"Then the requirement for me, day by day, has not changed. But there seems to be less debate outside."

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said Sunday's goalless LaLiga draw with Athletic Bilbao left a "bad taste".

Madrid hit the woodwork three times at the Santiago Bernabeu as Los Blancos ended the round two points adrift of leaders and defending champions Barcelona.

It was another toothless display as Madrid failed to score in back-to-back LaLiga games – Toni Kroos and Nacho hitting the crossbar either side of half-time before substitute Luka Jovic was denied by the base of the post with four minutes remaining.

Reflecting on the result, Courtois said: "It leaves us with a bad taste because we had two very intense matches [before playing Athletic].

"We struggled to get into the game at the start and then we didn't have luck on our side. We hit the woodwork three times and then the goalkeeper [Unai Simon] also deserves credit.

"Athletic try to frustrate you and the referee followed their game. They are two points lost, but we have to keep going."

"We have ended 2019 well in LaLiga," Courtois added. "At home we've dropped some points against some teams, and you come away disappointed, but overall we only lost one game and now we have to keep going.

"The team are doing well, playing well, and creating chances. It is just a shame that in the last three games we could not get the goals we needed. Karim [Benzema] is doing so well for us, he has been involved in so many goals this season."

 

Thibaut Courtois made the decision himself to go up for the late corner that saw Real Madrid snatch a last-gasp draw with Valencia, according to head coach Zinedine Zidane.

Madrid were staring down the barrel of a second LaLiga defeat of the season courtesy of Carlos Soler's 78th-minute striker at Mestalla.

However, Belgium goalkeeper Courtois saw a late header saved by Jaume Domenech and Karim Benzema lashed home to ensure Madrid returned to the capital with a point.

"He decided to go up and this shows that we wanted more, that we never give up," Zidane told a news conference.

"The equaliser is something that we put a lot of effort into. This is Real Madrid, a team that never gives up. They believed they could do it and they did.

"With everything we did, I think we deserved to score a goal that compensated with the effort of the team.

"Football is like this and you can't complain. You have to accept what football gives you. A point is little reward. 

"In the end, we got a big result, but it's a shame because we had a very good first half. They were better going forward in the second half and it was even."

Madrid were without Casemiro, who was rested against Valencia - likely due to the defensive midfielder being one yellow card away from suspension ahead of a midweek Clasico against Barcelona.

Zidane explained: "He wasn't meant to play and those that did did very well. Casemiro had played lots of games and I'm very happy that we did everything without him.

"We drew, but I think we deserved a bit more. He'd played 21 matches and he had to rest, but I was only thinking about the Valencia game."

Karim Benzema said he wants to lead Real Madrid to LaLiga glory this season after rescuing Los Blancos at the death against Valencia.

Madrid salvaged a dramatic 1-1 draw at Valencia on Sunday thanks to Benzema's last-gasp equaliser.

After Luka Jovic had a goal disallowed for offside, Benzema slammed home the leveller at Mestalla, where Madrid stayed level on points with rivals Barcelona atop the table.

"I want to win this league title and, if I can help my team-mates with play and with words, I will do it," said Benzema, who is only one goal behind LaLiga's leading scorer Lionel Messi this season. "I'm the third captain and I have to help.

"I think it's a good point for us. It could be important for the rest of the league campaign as we look to do well.

"What has changed compared to other seasons is the number of goals. I always try to help the team on the pitch and I have a lot of confidence in myself. The help of my team-mates is also important to me because they give me the ball and set up chances for me to score more goals."

Benzema found the back of the net after goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois almost scored a stunning equaliser.

Courtois went up for a corner, with Madrid desperate to salvage a point, and his header was dramatically saved by Valencia counterpart Jaume Domenech before Benzema pounced.

"I took advantage of my height to meet the corner," Courtois said. "I'm two metres tall and opponents get nervous if I go up [for corners].

"Toni [Kroos] sends corners to the near post, I saw the ball coming at my height and I connected well. Then the ball fell to Benzema and he scored."

Real Madrid shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world, according to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.

Courtois was dropped to the bench for Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga on Saturday amid criticism of his performances.

However, his international boss Martinez labelled the 27-year-old the world's best despite admitting the goalkeeper was going through a "difficult period".

"Thibaut is for me the best goalkeeper in the world, as he showed at the [2018] World Cup," Martinez said on Saturday.

"From there, he is the best person for me to defend Real Madrid's goal.

"It has been a difficult period, but I think that the opportunity to return with the national team has helped him to regain the good feelings, in the same way that we hope that the successes he has at Real Madrid can help us in the Euros."

Belgium were drawn alongside Denmark, Finland and Russia in Group B for Euro 2020.

Zinedine Zidane named Gareth Bale in Real Madrid's starting XI and left Thibaut Courtois on the bench for Saturday's meeting with Deportivo Alaves.

Madrid had the chance to go top of LaLiga, at least temporarily, with a point and four changes were made to the team that conceded two late goals in a 2-2 Champions League draw against Paris Saint-Germain in midweek.

Eden Hazard's absence as the result of an ankle injury gave Wales international Bale the chance to start at club level for the first time since October 5.

The 30-year-old winger angered Los Blancos supporters last week when he posed in front of a flag that read: "WALES. GOLF. MADRID. IN THAT ORDER".

Eder Militao took the place of Raphael Varane, who reportedly suffered a knock against PSG, while loanee Alphonse Areola got the nod in goal as head coach Zidane shuffled his pack for a third game in seven days.

Luka Modric came into midfield for Fede Valverde, who joined Vinicius Junior on the bench.

Zidane declared the little-used Brazilian attacker would not be sent out on loan in January, but it remained to be seen if he would get an opportunity to impress against the competition's 13th-placed team.

Thibaut Courtois has no doubt that Gareth Bale is committed to Real Madrid following the Wales star's controversial return to LaLiga action on Saturday.

Bale was introduced as a second-half substitute in the 3-1 win over Real Sociedad and was greeted by a mixture of boos and applause from the Santiago Bernabeu faithful.

It marked Bale's first appearance for Madrid since October and came at the end of a week in which he celebrated Wales' Euro 2020 qualification behind a banner that read: "WALES. GOLF. MADRID…IN THAT ORDER".

The slogan originates from a chant by Wales supporters that pokes fun at perceptions of Bale among the Spanish press, who have accused the former Tottenham player of pushing Madrid down his list of priorities.

Courtois would not be drawn on whether he believes the reception that greeted Bale was harsh, but is confident the 30-year-old remains committed to playing for the Spanish giants.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Tuesday's Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain, the Belgium international said: "You love your country and that comes before where you are playing, but he is involved every day and is a professional. 

"He was very involved when he came on and generated a lot of danger. [Luka] Modric's goal came from a cross of his. If he wasn't committed, he wouldn't play like that.

"We are here to win games. What has happened, has happened. He gives everything in training and matches to help us win. The Bernabeu has its opinion and I am not in a position to comment on that."

Madrid suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat to PSG in their opening Group A game in September, but Courtois insists Los Blancos will not have revenge on their minds during Tuesday's fixture.

"I wouldn't say revenge," he added. "The match helped us to learn. We have improved a lot lately and we will see where we are.

"We have to be strong and not make mistakes. It will be a great game from the first second until the last."

Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois claimed his status as one of the world's best goalkeepers brought unwarranted criticism in the early part of the new campaign.

Courtois bore a large share of the blame for Madrid's disappointing results at the start of the season, at one stage conceding nine goals in the space of 14 shots on target.

His performances prompted debate over the club's decision to part with Keylor Navas – who moved to Paris Saint-Germain – but the Belgium international has since rediscovered some of his best form.

The former Chelsea man has kept eight successive clean sheets for club and country, restoring his reputation as one of the game's finest keepers.

"I don't read the press, I only pay attention to what the coach or my team-mates say to me," Courtois, who moved to Madrid in 2018, said from Belgium's national team camp ahead of Euro 2020 qualifying.

"If they haven't been a goalkeeper themselves, how can they know how it all works?

"I don't doubt my own ability. I am one of the best goalkeepers in the world and sometimes that's why they criticise me. I'm calm about it because I made some good saves against Celta [Vigo], Sevilla and Atletico [Madrid], and in other games.

"I'm playing at a good level, it's turning out to be a good start to the season and I have to continue this way."

Zinedine Zidane last month substituted Courtois at half-time of the Champions League draw with Club Brugge, leading Madrid to issue a denial of reports which claimed the 27-year-old was dealing with an anxiety problem.

Courtois skipped the following LaLiga match against Granada before returning in a 1-0 loss to Real Mallorca.

"Zidane told me that I'd continue as first-choice, and asked me to keep focused," Courtois said. "He's always had faith in me."

Thibaut Courtois insists Real Madrid cannot pin the blame for their failure to beat Real Betis on the referee's decision not to award a penalty late on in Saturday's 0-0 draw.

Madrid were adamant they should have had a spot-kick when Karim Benzema's cross struck the arm of Betis defender Zouhair Feddal, who had slid in with his right hand trailing behind him.

Referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez consulted with VAR but did not go to a pitch-side monitor to check the decision himself, much to Madrid's chagrin.

Having been handed no reprieve by the officials, Madrid upped the pressure, but Joel Robles stood firm with two fine saves from Vinicius Junior, with earlier missed opportunities coming back to bite Los Blancos as Zinedine Zidane's side missed the chance to move top of LaLiga.

Courtois, however, did not entertain the possibility the referee was responsible, even though the Belgium international believes Madrid would have been worthy winners.

"It is not a penalty. The handballs in the [penalty] areas are very complicated," Courtois told reporters.

"It is not easy for referees and players to know when it is or not. We saw something, but we cannot protest something that no longer exists.

"I think in general we had a good game. We have created many chances. It is a shame, but we must continue. I think we played a game to win. You can't take anything away from Betis."

Zidane echoed Courtois' sentiment, claiming he could see little fault in his side's performance even though Madrid failed to capitalise on Barcelona's defeat to Levante and Atletico Madrid's draw with Sevilla.

"There was a handball, but the referee has decided it was otherwise. I don't get into referee issues. I saw the handball, but the referee's interpretation was different," Zidane told a news conference.

"The criteria for handball is clearly that of the referee because he has not consulted VAR. You have to respect what he says.

"At the level of play, intensity and attitude, everything was perfect. We were missing a goal. You cannot reproach anyone. We tried until the end.

"Everyone fails. It's going to be a very complicated league."

Eden Hazard has confirmed he discussed Real Madrid with Thibaut Courtois and Florentino Perez before completing his "dream" transfer from Chelsea.

Belgium star Hazard brought months of speculation to an end when he swapped Stamford Bridge for the Santiago Bernabeu in June.

The former Lille winger had hoped to make the move immediately after claiming the Silver Ball at the 2018 World Cup but the Blues blocked his exit, having already allowed goalkeeper Courtois to leave for Los Blancos.

Hazard spent a further 12 months in London and used the time to confirm the club's interest and the mood of his future team-mates.

"My dream was always to play for Real Madrid, the greatest team in the world, and so far I'm happy," Hazard told Real Madrid TV.

"Courtois always told me that this was the best club.

"I'd already made my mind up after the World Cup and I said to myself 'I have to join Real Madrid now'. That wasn't possible and I spent another year at Chelsea and that made my departure easier. The club understood it and allowed me to leave.

"I spoke to Florentino and he told me that he was waiting for me in Madrid.

"I also spoke to [Luka] Modric and got the impression that they all wanted to see me at Real Madrid and it finally happened."

Hazard, like many of his team-mates, has not enjoyed an easy start to the new season, with a glaring miss in the narrow Champions League win over Galatasaray indicative of his struggles.

But as Zinedine Zidane's men strive for form, the 28-year-old continues to have high hopes for success in Europe.

"As I said on my first day, for me, the Champions League is important," he said.

"In London, I only once reached the semi-finals. Chelsea had won their only Champions League trophy the year before I joined.

"They've won it a lot of times here in previous years and it's difficult to win it every season because there are many teams involved, but I've come here to win it because it's important for everyone and that goes for me too."

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