Zidane: "Benzema is a special player; he's fundamental for us"
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane sang Karim Benzema's praises as the striker returned to the squad ahead of Sunday's derby against Atletico.
Zinedine Zidane described Karim Benzema as a "joy for football" as the Real Madrid boss prepared to welcome the striker back for Sunday's crucial derby with Atlético Madrid.
Madrid make the short trip to the Wanda Metropolitano with Los Blancos trailing their LaLiga-leading neighbours by five points, Atlético also having the benefit of a game in hand.
Having returned to training this week following an ankle injury that has kept him out since February 14, Benzema is back in the frame for a game that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.
Zidane: "Benzema is a joy for football"
"Karim is going to be with us," Zidane told a media conference. "We know what Karim is. Not just the matter of goals. He is an important player for us in our system and especially when we have the ball.
"He is special. What he does on the field... For people who like football, Benzema is a joy for football; for me, having him as a coach is a joy.
"He has been here for 10 years and has improved a lot. He is a fundamental player for us, for our team. He is a special player for all football fans, not just Madrid."
While Zidane will have Benzema at his disposal, he will be without Eden Hazard, the Belgium playmaker having not featured since January because of a muscle issue.
But Zidane denied reports Hazard had suffered a setback in his recovery.
Zidane on Hazard: "We want him to be 100 per cent"
"There is no relapse. We want him to be 100 per cent when he can return," added Zidane. "This is what he is doing, little by little, without haste.
"We know how important he is in our team, but we have to go with how he feels. It is important that, when he returns, he feels strong and 100 per cent.
"We are not going to risk anything on his return. He is progressing very well, and I hope that next week maybe he can be with us for good."
Benzema could make a crucial difference for Madrid, though.
In the 21 league games in which he has featured this season, Madrid have won 15, drawn three and lost three. In the four games in which he has been absent, Madrid have won one, drawn two and lost one, averaging a point less across those matches.
They have averaged almost a goal per game more (1.9 to 1.0) with Benzema in the line-up compared to when he has not been available, the Frenchman having found the net 12 times in LaLiga this term.
However, even if Madrid are defeated by Atlético, Zidane will not see it as a death knell for their hopes of retaining the title.
"We play another game, three points at stake," said Zidane. "It is a final, but like all games. When we play we always have to win.
"Whatever happens, we will stay alive in La Liga. We are focused on playing a good game and nothing else. If we play well, that is the most important thing for us."