REAL MADRID

Real Madrid players rise to Zidane's LaLiga challenge

When he returned as Real Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane vowed not to underwhelm in LaLiga once again, declaring: "It has to be our primary objective."

Real Madrid players respond to Zidane's LaLiga challenge

If there's one thing Zinedine Zidane has been at pains to put right at Real Madrid, it is their recent habit of slipping off the pace in LaLiga.

Two seasons ago, Madrid were five points worse off than they are at the same stage of the current campaign, and had as good as given up on the title, with Barcelona a whopping 14 points ahead of them.

And last year, after Zidane's resignation, a side coached first by Julen Lopetegui, then Santi Solari, had again pretty much thrown in the towel by December. They had six points fewer than they do now and were seven off Barça - a gulf exacerbated by the psychological effect of being thumped 5-1 in the Clásico.

Real Madrid back in running after two years of meek surrender

However, after two seasons in which Madrid have been all but out of the running come Christmas, the situation this year is somewhat different. October's 1-0 defeat at newly-promoted Real Mallorca proved something of a turning point, after an uncharacteristically candid Zidane told reporters post-match: "We need to bring more life to our play if we want to achieve big things this year."

When Zidane talks like that in his press conferences, his players sit up and take note - and they have certainly responded. Madrid haven't lost any of the 12 games they've played since then; men with question marks hanging over them, such as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and midfielder Isco, have started to make their mark; and the spectre of former coaches (i.e. José Mourinho) has been banished.

For the first time since 2016/17, their only title-winning season under Zidane, Madrid are (together with joint leaders Barça) setting the pace in LaLiga.

Benzema grabs a last-gasp equaliser against Valencia at Mestalla.

Winning a 34th LaLiga title the priority for Zidane

Nobody at Real Madrid could say they hadn't been warned of the need to pull their socks up in LaLiga. In April, with last term's league campaign reduced to an audition space for Zidane's 2019/20 project, the coach served notice that, while lifting three Champions Leagues in a row was a historic feat, winning the domestic title would be his priority. "LaLiga is our bread and butter and next year it has to be our primary objective," he declared before his side's draw with Getafe.

Zidane is all too aware that, in recent seasons, Barça have closed in significantly on Madrid's record haul of 33 LaLigas, with the gap now down to seven. "Lately, they've been doing better [in the league], and we have to change that," he said. "For me, the most important thing is the league. In the Champions League, it takes 12 or 13 games to win it; in the league, it's day in, day out."

It remains to be seen whether or not Real Madrid will get back to LaLiga-winning ways come May, but one thing is for sure: Zidane is in no mood for another meek title surrender. And his players are certainly responding to the challenge.