Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane has shrugged off criticism of Karim Benzema ahead of Saturday’s FIFA Club World Cup final and says he will defend his striker “to the death”.
Benzema has scored just five goals in all competitions this season – including only two in LaLiga – and has found himself under increasing fire in some quarters.
However, Zidane has thrown his support behind his fellow Frenchman on the eve of their showdown with Gremio in Abu Dhabi, where the Spanish giants will hope to match Barcelona’s record of three Club World Cup crowns.
Zidane told a press conference: “I don’t agree with the critics. But no matter. What interests me isn’t only goals. I don’t only see goals in Karim. He’s a different player, he’s not going to score 50 or 60 goals a season, but he does other things.
“He’s a team player and one of the best in that sense. And I value that.
“I’ll defend him to the death.”
Real booked their place in the final with a come-from-behind victory over Al Jazira, with Gareth Bale netting a late winner just seconds after replacing Benzema.
That was Bale’s first goal since returning from a two-month injury lay-off and Zidane is thrilled to have the Welshman back.
“I’m very happy to see Gareth with us again,” said Zidane.
“He looks very happy to me and very pleased to be with his team-mates. We’ll see how he progresses. Tomorrow is a final and he’s prepared to play.”
The clash with Gremio comes a fortnight before Real take on Barcelona in a potentially critical encounter in the LaLiga title race.
Barca are currently eight points clear of Real and know a win at the Bernabeu could all but end their arch-rivals’ title defence.
Zidane admits victory over Gremio would be good for momentum, but insists El Clasico is currently far from their thoughts.
“Trophies are the nicest thing in football, so we’re not thinking about Barcelona. I think we’re improving, we need to show it and this is a good game to do that,” he said.
Zidane also dismissed suggestions Real are favourites to beat Gremio, saying the final is “50-50”.
In contrast, Gremio striker Luan claims his side are the underdogs, but warned Real to take nothing for granted as the Brazilian club attempt to add to their Copa Libertadores success after dispensing with Mexican outfit Pachuca in the semi-finals.
He told www.fifa.com: “Every side in the tournament has got quality. We had a tough game against Pachuca, and Madrid had a tough game too. The matches have been close.
“What we have to do is show why we became South American champions. We’ve got the quality to take on Madrid.”
Luan, who has tasted Olympic glory with Brazil, added: “We play with a lot of desire. They’re the favourites, of course, because they’ve got great players and the best player in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo).
“We want to perform the same way we’ve been doing all year – with the style and the type of football that helped us win the Libertadores.”