Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said he never doubted his players during his side’s last gasp 2-1 Champions League Group F win at home to Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday evening.
The visitors looked set for a famous first win at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu through Bruno Cesar’s 47th-minute strike, until ex-Sporting youth teamer Cristiano Ronaldo equalised with time almost up with a free kick, and Madrid substitute Alvaro Morata headed the winner with the last touch of the game.
For a long time it seemed Madrid were set to become the first Champions League holders to lose their opening game of the following season since 1994. But the Los Blancos coach told his postgame news conference that he had never lost belief that his team could find a way to come back and take the three points.
“It was not unexpected,” Zidane said. “I don’t know if it was a fair result or not, but we believed until the end, and you must play right until the end. We’re a united group, very focused, and we know that in any moment we can make the difference.
“That is what happened tonight. I know the game was not perfect, but there is never a perfect match. We cannot win every game 5-0. That does not exist. Today we suffered, but we got the three points. The important thing is to win the game.”
Zidane accepted that all three substitutes had made a difference — with James Rodriguez providing the cross for Morata’s header and Lucas Vazquez also bringing more energy and impetus on the wing.
“With the changes I wanted the team to do more — the three gave us something,” Zidane said. “Then the changes brought something — I am happy with James, Alvaro and Lucas. The important thing is I have these players who can make the difference, not every coach has these resources. I have the fortune to have a complete squad where they all feel important.”
James is the only outfield squad member yet to start a game for Madrid in any competition so far in 2016-17, sparking speculation Zidane does not see him as an important part of his squad. But the Frenchman said he was happy with the day-to-day work put in by the Colombia international.
“James has not been starting games, but he can,” Zidane said. “Not just for the 15 minutes he played today. What I value is the day-to-day work, and James is doing that well. He will get his chances, today he came on and made the difference. I am happy with his performance. Every month we see the player he is. We will see on Sunday what the team is, then Wednesday, then next Sunday.”
Big name attackers Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema were among the players replaced after low-key showings, but Zidane declined to go into detail about the reasons for the team’s below par first 85 minutes.
“For sure there are things I did not like,” he said. “We will analyse that. But there is nothing that stood out. We can do better, above all the first half, but there is an opponent who plays too, and can make things difficult for you.
“I was not surprised by Sporting — they are a very difficult opponent, they showed that through the game. We showed character and the effort was tremendous from them all, and they got their reward.”