Zidane, Real Madrid happy to come out of international break mostly intact
With the dust settled on the final round of World Cup 2018 qualication, Zinedine Zidane can now take stock of the so-called FIFA virus and see to what extent Real Madrid have been afflicted by the rigours of the international calendar.
It's a mixed bag for the Frenchman. On the one hand, Portugal and France both qualified for Russia as group winners, sparing Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane from the European playoffs. Wales were eliminated in a winner-take-all game with Ireland, which will come as a huge relief at the Bernabeu given Gareth Bale's injury history and the likelihood the forward would have forced the issue if he were needed. As it was, Bale reported for international duty already suffering a recurrence of his calf problem and was ruled out by Wales manager Chris Coleman, heading off further club versus country friction surrounding the forward's frequent layoffs.
Of Zidane's squad, only Luka Modric and potentially Mateo Kovacic will be forced to play competitive fixtures during November's international break after Croatia were condemned to the playoffs. With a Madrid derby at the Wanda Metropolitano immediately after the second leg, it could have been considerably worse for the Real boss. Now, Ronaldo, Bale and Varane at least can be used accordingly by their national team coaches in inconsequential friendly encounters. With the World Cup on the horizon, all parties will be eager to keep the other on side where there is no need to press international stars into unnecessary service.
However, it is not all good news for Zidane. Keylor Navas returned from Costa Rica's qualification success carrying a muscle strain that could rule him out of Real's matches against Getafe in La Liga and Tottenham in the Champions League. Kiko Casilla is a more than able deputy but Zidane would surely prefer to have his first-choice shot-stopper available when Harry Kane brings his hot scoring streak, which includes five in two games in Europe, to the Bernabeu next Tuesday.
Toni Kroos was also excused from the Germany squad with a bruised rib after playing in the 3-1 win over Northern Ireland that secured qualification for the World Cup holders, and it is unclear whether the midfielder will be available for the aforementioned trip to Getafe. Zidane will probably choose not to risk a key player for a game that shouldn't pose too many problems for the reigning champions with a view to the visit of Tottenham, who are second in Group H only by dint of the alphabet.
In the meantime, the international break has allowed Zidane and his staff to nurse Karim Benzema, Marcelo and Theo Hernandez back to health, with all three participating in training this week and ready to add some fresh options to the Real boss' squad for a run of five games in two weeks.
Naturally, few outside the Bernabeu will shed too many tears over Zidane's continuous injury concerns, a situation that led to the departure of the reportedly unpopular Jesus Olmo as chief of the medical department last summer. The Frenchman has 16 current full internationals in his 24-player squad -- and that does not include Benzema, who has been in international exile for two years due to the fallout from the Mathieu Valbuena scandal.
It is also the reason Zidane remains steadfast in his rotation policy, not just to rest key players in games against La Liga's lesser lights but also to ensure that he has match-ready replacements on hand when injuries affect his squad, as is almost inevitable when most are playing between 50 and 60 games a season. Jesus Vallejo remains the only unused outfield squad member in the current campaign and that has been due to injury.
As Zidane said after the 4-2 win over Leganes last season when he made several changes to his side: "I have a very good squad. All the players make it difficult for me when picking the team. That is why they are there; they are all such good players."
That squad depth proved crucial last season when key components of his side were missing and it will be required again as Real seek to successfully defend their title for the first time in a decade. The champions are already seven points behind Barcelona and although it is clearly too early to draw conclusions from seven games, Zidane himself admitted "this is not a brilliant period for us" after the 2-1 win at Alaves -- a victory inspired by a summer signing, Dani Ceballos, who was making his Liga debut for the club.
With big-name players missing or struggling for domestic form, it may fall to the younger generation -- of Zidane's summer acquisitions none are older than 23 -- to guide Real through an unexpected early Liga slump. So far, all those who have come in have proven themselves equal to the task.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.