Zidane plays with fire and gets burned as Real Madrid suffer Copa humiliation

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The decision to include neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Gareth Bale backfired spectacularly in one of the worst results in the club's golden history

Few times in Real Madrid's history could a Copa del Rey clash against Leganes be considered so important. But Zinedine Zidane nevertheless decided to play with fire, and the coach got burned worse than anybody in an historic, embarrassing elimination for the Merengue. With no Cristiano Ronaldo and no Gareth Bale on the bench the coach's apparent over-confidence was shown up as Madrid were dumped out of the Copa by their humble neighbours .

The team known as the 'Cucumber Growers', situated on the outskirts of Madrid are, with no disrespect intended, a team that Real are expected to beat no matter what the occasion, whatever the competition, and whatever the situation facing the Liga giants. 

With confidence at a low point in the Madrid dressing room, however, Wednesday's quarter-final return match took on extra importance. Even a draw would have kept the team alive in a competition that had been far down their list of priorities, but was more important now than ever due to the gulf in points that separates the Spanish champions from runaway leaders Barcelona. 

La Liga is over for Zidane and his struggling team. And now, thanks to a disastrous miscalculation from the coach, Madrid's season and most likely his job hangs on retaining the Champions League, as Leganes dumped them out of the Copa on away goals after a famous 2-1 win at the Bernabeu.

The start of the game was already foreboding. Real Madrid were sluggish from the off, disconnected in attack and with a chronic lack of fluidity across the pitch, as underlined by the fact that they failed to register a shot on target in the first half. The only previous time that had happened this season? Last week's first leg against Leganes!

Zidane, therefore, should have known that Ronaldo or Bale might be required. The decision to rest both only looked all the more like an oversight as the trio of Achraf Hakimi, Theo Hernández and Marcos Llorente became a Bermuda Triangle in the middle, as Madrid's usual fluency with the ball disappeared without a trace.

Achraf, highly touted as an alternative on the right to Dani Carvajal, was an unmitigated disaster. The youngster gave the ball away nine times in the opening half hour alone, and one of his erratic touches led to Nacho folding under pressure and a free ride for Eraso. The Leganes star made no mistake, levelling the tie on aggregate and silencing an uneasy Bernabeu in the opening minutes. 

It was not until two minutes after the break that 'normality', in Madrid's eyes, was restored. Benzema used his experience to bring some sort of calm to proceedings, sliding the ball past Nereo Champagne with the club's first shot on target of the evening, after being played in by Lucas Vazquez. But the joy, or relief, was all too short-lived. Just 10 minutes later, Pires swooped to send the away team into dreamland by heading home a corner.

This time, Theo, perhaps showing the damaging effect of precious few minutes on the pitch this season in his role as Marcelo's understudy, was to blame after losing his man in the box. The tension was back; and worse, as Pires' strike meant Madrid were heading out on away goals. And deservedly so. 

Madrid GFX

Llorente and Achraf were Zidane's chosen scapegoats, hauled off in the second half to make way for the cavalry in the shape of Carvajal and Luka Modric. But it was too little, too late to change the course of a lost cause. Not that the substitutions made too much difference to a lacklustre attempt to fight back into the clash, as the malaise caught hold even in Madrid's most consistent performers. 

Zidane's last switch was to remove Isco, a decision that sat badly with the playmaker who was visibly annoyed at seeing Borja Mayoral sent on in his stead. That substitution, with 15 minutes left, was Real's last stand: the cue for an all-out battering of the Leganes net in the hope of averting disaster. 

Nereo Champagne Real Madrid Leganes

Nereo Champagne Real Madrid Leganes

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It was not to be, however. Champagne, the unheralded 33-year-old keeper signed from Argentine minnows Olimpo at the start of 2017-18 and a novice in the Spanish game, wrote his name into Copa folklore with great stops to keep out Benzema and Ramos. Thanks to Nereo, the champagne corks will certainly be flying in one corner of Madrid, celebrating an incredible comeback that was never meant to happen. 

For Zidane and his charges, the funeral march would be more appropriate. La Liga is over, the Copa is over: now only more Champions League glory, starting with a do-or-die clash against Paris Saint-Germain, is likely to quell the angry voices that will only get louder after this historic humiliation.

As it stands, Madrid's season could be over by March 6, a catastrophe almost without parallel for a team used to fighting for silverware and a painful lesson for Zidane that it rarely pays to play with fire, no matter the opposition.

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