Football: Hurting Madrid refuse to throw in the towel, says Zidane

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during the match.
Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during the match.PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (AFP) - Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane accepted responsibility for a bruising 3-0 El Clasico defeat on Saturday (Dec 23) that left the European champions 14 points adrift of Barcelona at the top of La Liga.

However, the Frenchman insisted Madrid will come back stronger in the new year after La Liga's winter break and refused to concede the league to Barca.

"We are down because it is a defeat that hurts," said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

"Madrid never give up, whatever happens. It is a difficult moment because we've lost by three goals. I could say we don't deserve it, but that is football."

Defeat leaves Madrid still down in fourth with Barca now nine points clear of their closest challengers Atletico Madrid.

Zidane took the surprise decision to start Mateo Kovacic for the first time in La Liga this season to try negate the threat of Lionel Messi as the Croatian had so successfully when Real thrashed Barca 5-1 in the Spanish Super Cup on aggregate in August.

However, after Madrid missed a host of first-half chances, Kovacic was powerless to stop Messi wrestling control of the game as the Argentine netted from the penalty spot after Luis Suarez's opener and then teed up Aleix Vidal for Barca's third in stoppage time.

"Tomorrow, they are going to hammer me; that is football, but it won't change how I think or what I do," added Zidane.

"I am the coach, and I will continue like this as long as I am here."

Any chance of a Real recovery after Suarez's opener was dented as Dani Carvajal also saw a red card for punching the ball off the goal line before Messi's spot-kick.

RONALDO MISKICK

"The first goal comes from an error by us and the sending-off completely changes the complexion of the game," added Zidane.

"Playing with 10 men 2-0 down is very difficult both mentally and physically."

A 3-0 defeat is also Zidane's heaviest since he took charge of Real nearly two years ago.

However, there didn't appear to be such a margin between the sides in the first 45 minutes as Madrid dominated.

Cristiano Ronaldo miskicked with the goal at his mercy after just 10 minutes and Karim Benzema hit the post just before half-time.

"They pressed us very high and it forced us to play long," said Barca boss Ernesto Valverde.

"We couldn't play as we are used to. It was an open game with no side in command, but in the second-half we managed to impose our control on the game."

Valverde refused to accept he had tactically outfoxed Zidane and insisted Barca can't celebrate taking back the title from Madrid just yet with 21 league games still to come.

"Our intention is that no one beats us," he added, when quizzed as to whether his side - on a 25-game unbeaten run - are capable of dropping enough points to led Madrid back into the title race.

"Winning points is extremely difficult and losing them is easy. There is a long way to go."

However, while Messi once again shone, Valverde reserved special praise for Thomas Vermaelen who contributed to another clean sheet in the absence of the injured Samuel Umtiti.

Vermaelen has been much-criticised since joining from Arsenal in 2014 for poor performances and unfortunate history of injuries.

"People ask me a lot about Vermaelen as if it seems something bad is going to happen.

"What I see is a player who trains well, plays, well, is strong and can play with the ball.

"At times in Barcelona we want to put on the bandage before there is a wound."