Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane hints at exit: 'There is a lot of fatigue'
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has given the clearest hint yet that he has already decided to resign as coach at the end of the season.
Zidane had an outstanding first 18 months in the job, winning back to back Champions Leagues, as well as the 2016-17 La Liga title, with the Frenchman winning The Best FIFA Men's Coach of the Year award for 2017 and being widely hailed as the perfect man for the Bernabeu bench.
However, Los Blancos' current campaign has seen Madrid fall 17 points adrift of runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona, and brought an embarrassing Copa del Rey exit to Leganes, leading to new criticism of Zidane's tactical nous and man-management skills.
The mood around the Bernabeu was lifted hugely by Wednesday's 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie, but Zidane told a news conference on Saturday that the Madrid job was exhausting and he could not look further than this summer.
"[In football management] there is a lot of fatigue, even more in Real Madrid," Zidane said. "Of course a moment can come when there are changes, but for all of us, not just the coach. Not yet, but it will happen for sure.
"For me the most important thing is still the day to day work, I want to finish this season, there are things to play for -- that is all that interests me. I do not want to talk about anything else."
Zidane was speaking ahead of Sunday evening's La Liga trip to Real Betis, where Gareth Bale is expected to return to the team having surprisingly been left on the bench for the huge clash with PSG midweek.
Zidane said that decision to start Isco in midfield for the season's biggest game so far had been a tactical one based on what would work best against the opposition on the night.
"These are decisions you have to make," Zidane said. "I want to have all the players ready, and the other day they were. I wanted to play a diamond [in midfield] as it seemed the best way to play against PSG. Now we have many games coming up, and I will count on all the players."
Madrid remain in fourth place in La Liga and now face into five easier on paper domestic games in three weeks -- against Betis, Leganes, Alaves, Espanyol and Getafe -- before the Champions League second leg in Paris on March 6. Zidane said the best way to prepare for that return game was to keep their focus through a busy Liga schedule.
"We won playing a good game, but it is just one game," Zidane said. "We know we have the away game to come, and before that we have five La Liga games. The best way to prepare [for the Champions League return] is to play many games, and play well in La Liga. That means we will need all the players more than ever. They must all be ready."
Cristiano Ronaldo is not expected to be rested against a Betis side which won 1-0 at the Bernabeu last September, and have won their last two La Liga games to join a tight race for Europa League qualification. The 33-year-old's double against PSG meaning he has scored nine goals in his last four games in all competitions, following a slower start to the La Liga campaign.
"You can never doubt [Ronaldo], even when he does not score," Zidane said. "With few occasions he can hurt you, we know that. I don't know if this is his best form, but he knows there is a long way left and he will be there."
With Toni Kroos out with a knee ligament injury, Mateo Kovacic could come into midfield on Sunday evening. Out of form Karim Benzema may drop to the bench, with young winger Marco Asensio starting following his two assists from the bench in midweek.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan