MADRID (AP) — Some of Real Madrid’s top players are coming back at a crucial time of the season.
Eden Hazard isn’t among them, though.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane will have the squad close to full strength on Tuesday when it defends its 1-0 first-leg win over Atalanta in the round of 16 of the Champions League, but Hazard again won’t be available because of an injury.
The club said Monday that the Belgium playmaker has a muscle injury in his right leg, the latest of a series of problems that have kept him from playing much lately.
Hazard had come off the bench to play a few minutes in a Spanish league match against Elche on Saturday after being out for nearly two months.
“He is not fit to be with us in this match (against Atalanta),” Zidane said. “I can’t tell you any more because I can’t explain these things. I hope it’s not much because we have to be positive. Something is happening.
“He’s a player who has never been injured or not been injured much in his career and this is a new situation for him. I can’t explain it. We are there for him and we want him to get better. I hope he’ll be back with us soon.”
Madrid had nearly 10 players sidelined not long ago, but little by little they have been coming back to help the club as it enters the final stretch of the season while still in contention in the Champions League and the Spanish league.
Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo — who have missed several matches recently because of injuries, including the first game against Atalanta — are all expected to be available for the second leg at the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium.
Benzema, who had missed three consecutive games, returned two matches ago, while Ramos played from the start in the 2-1 win over Elche. Benzema scored both goals, including the winner in second-half stoppage time, against Elche. Ramos was back after being out for nearly two months.
Marcelo is set to return to the squad after more than a month out injured.
The return of those players gives Zidane greater flexibility tactically. He has been experimenting with different setups recently and could take advantage of having more options available. He has been favoring a 3-5-2 scheme that he used against Elche and is likely to try it again.
“We have played with this formation in a few games,” Zidane said. “It’s part of our game, we can play like this or with four defenders. We can play in different ways. But we’ll see how we are going to set up the team.”
The return of Marcelo may make it easier for him to use the 3-5-2 formation because the Brazilian can play well helping the attack. The 3-5-2 setup backfired for Zidane a few weeks ago, though, when he switched from a 4-3-3 halfway through a league match against Real Sociedad, when left back Ferland Mendy struggled, and Madrid ended up drawing 1-1 at home.
Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini has almost a full squad available, though defender Remo Freuler is suspended following his red card in the first leg. Madrid will be without the suspended Casemiro because of an accumulation of yellow cards.
Atalanta has won all of its European matches away from home this season, including a 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Anfield. It has won three of its four games in Serie A since the first-leg loss to Madrid.
“This will be a different kind of game,” Gasperini said. “We are facing Real Madrid after losing the first leg. They were favorites before, now even more so. But we are still capable, we want to play well and ensure the game is as competitive as possible.”
Atalanta is looking to make it to the Champions League quarterfinals for the second straight season. Madrid hasn’t made it out of the last 16 in the last two seasons.