Zinedine Zidane insists "no one has the blame" for Sergio Ramos returning from Spain duty with a calf injury that has "hurt" Real Madrid for a key stretch of the season.

Ramos returned from a knee issue ahead of the international break and scored for Madrid as they knocked Atalanta out of the Champions League.

However, he then played just 50 minutes across two appearances for Spain in World Cup qualifying and complained of a calf problem after a short cameo at home to Kosovo.

Madrid have not confirmed the anticipated length of Ramos' lay-off, but a return in time to face Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals and Barcelona in LaLiga appears unlikely.

Los Blancos host Liverpool on April 6, with a second leg eight days later sandwiching a critical home Clasico.

Given Ramos has appeared just 20 times for Madrid in all competitions this season, questions might be asked of his involvement for Spain.

But Zidane told a news conference on Friday: "No one has the blame here - not Spain, not Real Madrid. This is just football.

"Unfortunately, these things happen; it's happened before, not just to us but to a lot of other teams as well.

"It's true that, this part of football, we don't like it, of course, but these things happen. We have to accept this, but no one is to blame here.

"What we want for Sergio is that he recovers as quickly as possible. We know the player and captain he is. We know that he always wants to be available and playing.

"This has hurt us a little bit and we hope he recovers quickly."

Ramos' absence for the two legs against Liverpool would appear particularly costly as Madrid have lost seven of the 10 Champions League games he has missed since the end of the 2017-18, the season in which they were last crowned European champions and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo departed.

The centre-back has made 14 European appearances in that time and contributed to 10 wins, losing only once, while Los Blancos concede only 0.9 goals per game with him in the side - down from 1.9 without him.

But Zidane was not looking as far ahead as an intriguing last-eight tie, as Madrid first face Eibar on Saturday, playing before Atletico Madrid and Barca and able to cut the gap at the top to three points.

"You talk about Liverpool and Barcelona - we have a game tomorrow to play," Zidane said.

"We want Sergio back, we want him to be with us at all times, but right now we just focus on tomorrow's game.

"This is going to mark the path for the rest of the season. We just focus on tomorrow and that's it. Tomorrow at 4.15 [CET], we have a game and we have to all be ready, all of us."

Ramos is not Madrid's only injury absentee, either, with Eden Hazard prevented from going away with Belgium and Toni Kroos returning ealry from Germany duty.

Kroos has been a key man this season, playing 35 games and providing nine assists from 83 chances created, and he is "doing better", Zidane said.

The coach added Madrid are "not going to be silly" with the midfielder but he trained on Friday.

Hazard, on the other hand, has repeatedly suffered with fitness issues, restricted to only nine starts in 2020-21 and having a meagre four goal involvements.

"Once again, we don't have a plan with Eden," Zidane said. "It's a day-to-day thing, like everything.

"We're not going to force anything because the most important thing is that he's well, that he's recovered. For us, it's bit by bit.

"I'm not going to tell you we'll re-evaluate in a week, a few days, nothing. If it's in a few days, that's good for us; 10 days, okay. We're just going to take it day by day.

"He is with the team now and that's what we want. When he plays, we'll see."

Germany head coach Joachim Low has batted away talk of "world-class" Toni Kroos retiring from international football after this year's European Championship.

Real Madrid midfielder Kroos withdrew from the Germany squad at the start of last week, ahead of their opening World Cup qualifying fixtures.

Low's side claimed maximum points from their first two Group J games against Iceland and Romania and will expect to make it a hat-trick of triumphs when North Macedonia visit Duisburg on Wednesday.

Kroos is Die Mannschaft's most-capped active player – and joint 10th overall – having featured 101 times since his Germany debut in 2010.

His last appearance was in November's humiliating 6-0 Nations League defeat to Spain, although he did emerge with some credit.

Kroos enjoyed a pass completion rate of 97.7 per cent – the highest of any starting player across both sides – while no German starter lost possession fewer times than him (four).

Reports have circulated recently that 31-year-old Kroos is ready to call time on his international career after the rearranged Euro 2020 finals, but Low is not ready to write off the midfielder just yet.

"It's a media issue," Low told a media conference. "Toni is a world-class player with an enormous wealth of experience. We won't start to doubt his quality now."

Low also hailed the "step forward" made by Leroy Sane over the past week.

The Bayern Munich forward made three key passes against Romania – matched only by Serge Gnabry for Germany – and won 11 of his 12 duels.

Low was particularly impressed with the 25-year-old's defensive contributions.

"In the last two games Leroy had extremely good moments in defence," Low said. "He won four or five balls against Romania and some against Iceland.

"You haven't seen that before. He made a clear step forward."

Germany are red-hot favourites to progress to Qatar 2022 as Group J winners, but Low has warned his players against complacency when they host North Macedonia.

"I have the feeling that North Macedonia have rolled up their sleeves", said Low, who will step down from his position at the end of Euro 2020. "They are no worse than Romania. It will be a real show of strength.

"We're not taking anything for granted. North Macedonia are shrewd opponents. It will be another tricky task to come away with all three points."

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has withdrawn from the Germany squad for their upcoming fixtures because of an adductor injury.

The 31-year-old linked up with his national side on Monday for the World Cup qualifiers with Iceland, Romania and North Macedonia.

However, Germany confirmed on Tuesday that Kroos has returned to Madrid as a precautionary measure and will play no part in any of their games over the next eight days.

"Our medical department has examined and treated Toni intensively," said head coach Joachim Low, who will step down from his position at the end of the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament.

"He would have liked to stay with us, and I am reluctant to be without him. But with a view to the Euros, we decided that the full recovery from this injury must be a priority."

Kroos earned his 100th cap for Germany in October's 3-3 draw with Switzerland and has featured 35 times in all competitions for Madrid this season.

He previously missed two games earlier this season with a gluteal injury, seeing him play no part in the league wins over Real Valladolid and Levante.

Germany are also without Niklas Sule and Robin Gosens for Thursday's clash with Iceland in Duisburg, the pair unavailable with thigh and muscular problems respectively.

The build-up to the match has been dominated by talk of who will succeed Low as the next Germany head coach, but Manuel Neuer insists it will be business as usual on the field.

"We had a short team meeting and are concentrating on our tasks," he said. "We have to be well prepared for the European Championship and will use every game to do that.

"We cannot make any more mistakes. We have a strong group, against some strong opponents, so every game is a final from the start.

"Of course now we want to crown this era with a success. The coach deserves that to end with a success after the successful years.

"He is is very motivated and ambitious. It's not that he thinks he's going to retire. He's enthusiastic. He wants to quit as national coach as successfully as possible."

Under-21s boss Stefan Kuntz is among the frontrunners to replace Low, who has been at the helm since 2006 and guided his country to World Cup success in 2014.

Ralf Rangnick and Hansi Flick, who manages Neuer at club level with Bayern, are also in the running, while Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann have distanced themselves.

Asked about the candidates for one of the top jobs in football, Neuer said: "A national coach must have experience and must have done one or the other in German football. 

"He should know the Bundesliga. It's not about what we think, but about the goals that we have in front of us."

Atalanta will hope to keep Italy's Champions League interest alive in Tuesday's last-16 second legs.

Gian Piero Gasperini's men have the simple tasking of overturning a 1-0 deficit away to Real Madrid, the most successful club in the competition's history and winners of four of the past seven tournaments.

Zinedine Zidane's men have struggled for consistency in 2020-21 but the Champions League traditionally brings out their best, while Atalanta's visit could also be one to celebrate for Toni Kroos.

Madrid may be confident in their chances, but Manchester City are in an even more enviable position, having won 2-0 away to Borussia Monchengladbach in their first leg.

Gladbach have struggled badly since the announcement that Marco Rose will be leaving for Borussia Dortmund ahead of next season, losing six games in a row in all competitions, and they could represent good opposition for Sergio Aguero, who is chasing a milestone goal.

 

Real Madrid (1) v Atalanta (0): Can Gasperini's men restore national pride in Spain?

Atalanta enjoyed their only previous visit to Spain in European competition, winning 4-3 at Valencia at this stage of last season's competition to secure a sensational 8-4 aggregate victory, with Josip Ilicic scoring all four goals.

However, history is not on their side this time. Italian teams have lost 11 of their previous 12 games against Madrid and conceded at least twice in 10 of those matches. You have to go back to Juventus in November 2008 to find an Italian side who stopped Los Blancos scoring.

Madrid have progressed from eight of the past nine Champions League knockout ties in which they have won the first leg, the exception being two years ago, when Ajax caused a shock with a 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, more recent form may give them reason for concern.

Madrid have gone four home knockout games without a win, while Atalanta have not conceded an away Champions League goal this season and are enjoying a five-game winning run on their travels, the best such sequence of any side in the competition.

Toni Kroos could be in for a milestone match. The midfielder could become only the second German outfield player to start 100 Champions League matches, after Bayern Munich great Philipp Lahm, who finished on 110.

With Eden Hazard injured once more, Zidane could do with Marco Asensio ending his goal drought. The Spain international has attempted 14 shots in six games, the most of any player left in the competition who has failed to score a goal.

Manchester City (2) v Borussia Monchengladbach (0): Bundesliga side hoping for miracle

Gladbach's last visit to City ended in a 4-0 loss, their joint-heaviest away defeat in the competition. In fact, City are unbeaten in five meetings with Tuesday's opponents and have scored at least twice in each of their four victories.

Pep Guardiola's first Champions League game in charge was a 4-0 home win over Gladbach, with City having won more games (16) and scored more goals (59) in home matches than any other English side in the competition in that time. They are on a run of 10 wins in 11 European games at the Etihad Stadium, in which they have averaged 3.5 goals per match.

Gladbach enjoyed a superb group stage but, since consecutive 6-0 and 4-0 wins over Shakhtar Donetsk, they have lost three games in a row and failed to score in their previous two. It is hard to look beyond a comfortable City victory.

Aguero will hope for another start, and should the Argentinian score, he will reach 20 goals in 29 Champions League games under Guardiola. That would draw him level with Thomas Muller and leave him behind only Lionel Messi (43) for the most goals scored in the competition under the former Barcelona boss.

Real Madrid star Toni Kroos said he is planning to retire at the LaLiga champions.

Kroos has enjoyed great success since joining Madrid from Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich in 2014, winning three Champions League trophies and two LaLiga titles among 13 honours.

The 31-year-old midfielder has made 309 appearances for Madrid across all competitions – the most by a German player at the Santiago Bernabeu, surpassing Uli Stielike.

Reflecting on the feat, Kroos – who has scored 21 goals since moving to the Spanish capital – told Real Madrid TV: "It's something special. When you look at the Germans who have played here you realise that they are big names: [Gunter] Netzer, [Bernd] Schuster or Stielike.
 
"Overtaking Stielike, who is a club legend, makes me really happy. It's a special record and I'm delighted to get to this point.

"As I've always said, my idea is to retire here and that's what I'm going to try to do."

Kroos has scored two goals and supplied six assists in 22 LaLiga appearances this season, while he has made 31 appearances across all competitions.

Madrid are third in LaLiga, five points adrift of neighbours and leaders Atletico Madrid ahead of Sunday's derby.

Zinedine Zidane's Madrid have not lost any of their three games at the Wanda Metropolitano in LaLiga (W1 D2), and remain the only team to have played in the new Atletico venue without losing in the league.

Zidane is unbeaten in his three away LaLiga fixtures against Atletico as a head coach (W1 D2) and could become the second Madrid boss to avoid defeat in his first four away derbies versus Rojiblancos in the history of the competition, after Luis Molowny in 1986 (W3 D1).

"I try to give my best in every game and every pass I make that doesn't reach my team-mate annoys me," Kroos added.

"I try to strive for perfection in this sense, although you can never be perfect.

"I practice it and I've been working on it continuously for many years."

Toni Kroos was not entertaining transfer speculation ahead of Real Madrid's Champions League trip to Atalanta, claiming he would rather pass to injured team-mate Karim Benzema than Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland.

Mbappe and Haaland were outstanding as Europe's premier club competition returned last week.

Paris Saint-Germain striker Mbappe became just the second player ever to score a Champions League hat-trick away to Barcelona, while Haaland netted twice for Borussia Dortmund to swell his tally in the competition to 18 goals in 13 games.

The pair, aged 22 and 20 respectively, have predictably dominated discussion since then, with Europe's leading coaches asked about the possibility of signing either Mbappe or Haaland.

But Kroos was reluctant to weigh in, pointing out Madrid would not be able to call on the duo against Atalanta.

Asked who he would bring to the Santiago Bernabeu, the midfielder replied: "Good question. It's true: they're both very good at what they do.

"Those players would help any team - that's normal with the quality they have. The problem is that tomorrow neither of them are going to help us.

"We're just focusing on tomorrow's game. It doesn't help me if one or the other comes, that's not what we're thinking about at the moment.

"We're just going to try to win tomorrow with the players we have now. The rest is a question for the president."

Pressed further on which player he would rather create chances for, Kroos said simply: "Benzema."

Benzema has 17 goals in all competitions this season, the most of any Madrid player but 10 shy of Haaland and four fewer than Mbappe.

Among players in Europe's 'top five' leagues with 15 goals or more, only Marcus Rashford (one every 161 minutes), Son Heung-min (every 155 minutes) and Lautaro Martinez (every 151 minutes) have scored at a slower rate than Benzema (every 140 minutes).

Haaland nets every 79 minutes, second only to Luis Muriel (every 73 minutes), a Madrid opponent this week with Atalanta.

Benzema remains out of action with a knock as Madrid head to Bergamo with a threadbare squad.

Zinedine Zidane was able to name just 19 players to his travelling party, including five - in Diego Altube, Miguel Gutierrez, Sergio Arribas, Antonio Blanco and Hugo Duro - who are yet to start a match this season in all competitions.

Due to Benzema's absence, holding midfielder Casemiro is the most prolific player in the group, having scored six times this term.

"We have to do everything together," Kroos said. "We are missing players, important players, and not just one, a lot of them.

"We have to do everything together. Everyone that's here has to do a little bit extra. If we do that, we can do great things together, as we've seen in the last games."

Zinedine Zidane and Toni Kroos have lamented Real Madrid's growing injury issues after full-back Dani Carvajal limped off in Sunday's 2-0 win over Valencia.

Carvajal was making his first appearance for Madrid since January 2 but lasted just 28 minutes before sustaining an apparent injury to his right thigh.

He has been restricted to 12 games in all competitions this term and is now considered a big doubt for the Champions League last-16 first leg with Atalanta on February 24.

The Spain international joins the likes of Sergio Ramos, Eder Militao, Alvaro Odriozola, Eden Hazard, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde and Marcelo on the sidelines.

Madrid boss Zidane is concerned about the long list of injuries he has had to contend with this term and is unsure why so many players have been ruled out of action.

"There are a lot of injuries," he told Movistar. "I'm worried because when you lose a player it bothers me. It's a relapse [for Carvajal]. 

"I'm sorry for him because he was fine to play and is a very important player to us. But I can't explain all these injuries."

Asked if the packed fixture schedule is to blame, with Madrid playing nine times since the turn of the year, Zidane said: "I'm not going to get into that.

"We already have enough trouble. The calendar is what it is. We didn't have a normal pre-season and there are many injuries. 

"I hope to get my players back but I'm not going to get involved in the rest."

Lucas Vazquez replaced Carvajal at right-back and slotted in seamlessly by teeing up Kroos for Madrid's second, 30 minutes after Karim Benzema had opened the scoring.

Kroos, who scored and assisted a goal in the same Madrid match for the first time since November 2018, joined Zidane in bemoaning his side's injury nightmare.

"It worries us a lot, of course. We are without important players," he said. "Dani has come back from three injuries in a row - it's not right, we don't like it.

"But the others have to do as much as possible. We can't change the situation, just accept it."

Valencia managed just one attempt on target at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano - Maxi Gomez's shot from range - in what was a routine third successive league win for Madrid.

Zidane's men have now kept back-to-back clean sheets and the Frenchman is pleased with the improvement made by his side at the back.

"That much is evident," he said. "We believe a lot in what we do. We are overcoming difficulties and there is a lot left for us to give."

Madrid, who have now gone 13 home LaLiga matches without losing to Valencia, are five points adrift of Atletico Madrid having played two games more than the league leaders.

But two-time title-winning boss Zidane is not yet giving up hope of chasing down rivals Atletico, who Madrid face at Wanda Metropolitano on March 7.

"We are going to continue doing what we are doing," he said. "We are not going to look at what others are doing. Today we played a very good game. 

"They all defended very well without the ball and when got forward we caused a lot of damage. We have to continue in this way."

Valencia head coach Javi Gracia has won only one of his eight LaLiga games against Madrid and took full blame for his side's lacklustre display in the Spanish capital.

"It was a bad game from us," he said. "I do not know if it was our worst of the season but one of the worst. The intention was to be more aggressive, it was very easy for them.

"The coach has the maximum responsibility in everything. This is a step backwards in our trajectory. From the first minute we have not been able to demonstrate anything. 

"We have not seen options to achieve anything positive here. We could not even link two passes"

Karim Benzema maintained his impressive scoring run against Valencia and Toni Kroos was also on target as Real Madrid eased to a 2-0 win in Sunday's LaLiga clash.

French striker Benzema netted for the fifth league game running in this fixture to open the scoring at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano and Kroos added a second before half-time.

Valencia won the reverse fixture 4-1 in November, with Carlos Soler scoring a hat-trick of penalties, but they offered little attacking threat in a one-sided game in the Spanish capital.

Ferland Mendy had a goal ruled out in a low-key second half as Madrid, who lost Dani Carvajal to an injury on his return to action, made it three league wins in a row to move back into second place.

Valencia were seeking a first league double over Madrid since 1967-68 but found themselves behind to Benzema's 12th-minute strike.

Kroos played the ball to Benzema towards the left and the striker cut inside before curling a 20-yard shot into the bottom-right corner.

Losing Carvajal to an injury was a blow for the hosts but they did not lose any fluency as Kroos fired in from the edge of the box for only his second goal this season.

Valencia, now without an away league win against Madrid in 13 attempts, pressed for an equaliser and called Thibaut Courtois into action through a Maxi Gomez drive.

Mendy had the ball in the net soon after, only for his celebrations to be cut short as VAR adjudged the defender's heel to be offside before he converted Vinicius Junior's pass.

Zinedine Zidane's men went close to adding to their tally, but Jaume Domenech denied Benzema at his near post and Mendy lost his footing when shooting from a good position late on.

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