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Zidane making sure entire Madrid squad stays motivated

MADRID (AP) — It's been difficult to understand some of Zinedine Zidane's lineup decisions at Real Madrid recently. The player who scores a hat trick in one game sits out the next. The one who looks like a regular starter at one point suddenly is pushed to the sidelines for an extended period.

It's all part of a bigger plan by the coach, though, one to have the squad — the entire squad — motivated and fully committed for when the decisive moments of the season arrive. "I want everyone to show that they are ready," Zidane said after the team's 4-0 rout of Eibar in the Spanish league on Saturday. "I have to manage the squad, and make sure that all the players feel they are an important part of this team. This is how I think we can achieve big things. With 12 or 13 players you can succeed for some time, but not over a longer period."

His rotations have come often and without much logic, at least to those looking from the outside. Against Eibar, Zidane decided not to use young forward Rodrygo, who was coming off a hat trick and an assist in the team's 6-0 rout of Galatasaray in the Champions League three days earlier. He instead promoted the return of Lucas Vázquez, who had missed action recently despite being a preferred starter earlier in the season.

Rodrygo had taken the spot of fellow Brazilian Vinícius Júnior, who had lost space after often playing in place of Gareth Bale in the beginning of the season. Zidane also made changes between goalkeepers Thibaut Courtois and Alphonse Areola, switched between left backs Marcelo and Ferland Mendy, and often rotated midfielders Federico Valverde, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.

Few players have been able to avoid Zidane's changes, most notably the newly signed Eden Hazard and the red-hot Karim Benzema, the Spanish league's leading scorer with nine goals. "The important thing is that those who are getting to play have been playing well," Zidane said. "I will count on all of them. It means a lot when they are motivated and responding positively when they get a chance to play."

Madrid shares the Spanish league lead with Barcelona and is in good position to advance from the group stage of the Champions League. KUBO THRIVES It might not be long before Zidane has another talented player to manage in his squad — Japanese teenager Takefusa Kubo.

The 18-year-old Kubo belongs to Madrid but is playing on loan with Mallorca, where he has impressed recently. The skillful midfielder scored his first Spanish league goal in the team's 3-1 win over Villarreal on Sunday, hitting a firm left-footed shot from inside the area. He also had a role in the team's other two goals.

"I'm happy that we got the win and that it came with me scoring a goal," Kubo said. "I didn't get off to a good start in the match, lost some balls, but eventually things started going well." VALENCIA'S INJURIES

Valencia defeated Granada 2-0 for its third straight win on Saturday, but two key players left the game injured, adding to the team's long injury list. Midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia had to be replaced before halftime with a muscle injury and striker Rodrigo left the field shortly after the break with a back problem.

Rodrigo was dropped from Spain's national team because of the injury. Several other players have been out because of injuries, including Gonçalo Guedes, Carlos Soler, Denis Cheryshev and Mouctar Diakhaby.

Valencia is ninth in the Spanish league and is in contention for a spot in the knockout stages of the Champions League. SCORING BATTLE Only Villarreal striker Gerard Moreno failed to find the net among the Spanish league's top scorers this weekend.

Karim Benzema scored twice for Real Madrid to remain the leading scorer with nine goals, but Lionel Messi moved closer after a hat trick in Barcelona's 4-1 win over Celta Vigo on Saturday. The Argentina playmaker has eight goals.

Moreno also has eight goals, as does Loren Morón, who netted Real Betis' lone goal in the team's 2-1 loss to rival Sevilla on Sunday. Lucas Pérez scored his seventh goal in seven matches in Alavés' 3-0 victory over Valladolid on Saturday.

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