MADRID, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane braced himself for a chorus of criticism for his team selection after their humiliating 3-0 defeat at home by Barcelona which saw the Catalans widen the gulf between the two rivals in the Liga standings to 14 points.
The French coach made the surprising decision to play Mateo Kovacic in place of Isco in Saturday’s ‘Clasico’ to strengthen the midfield, but after a strong first half display his side were repeatedly ripped apart on the counterattack by Barca.
“I know tomorrow I’m going to be hammered for this but I’m here to make decisions and I have no regrets,” Zidane told a news conference after the heaviest defeat of his trophy-laden 23-month spell in charge of Real.
Karim Benzema hit the post and Cristiano Ronaldo was denied by Marc-Andre ter Stegen in a bright first half display but Luis Suarez put Barca in front 10 minutes into the second half after arriving unchallenged in the box to finish off a counterattack.
Lionel Messi struck the second goal from the penalty spot after Dani Carvajal used his arm to stop Paulinho’s header going in, while substitute Aleix Vidal grabbed the third goal in injury time.
“The game would have been different if we’d scored in the first half. We didn’t, and that’s football,” Zidane added.
“We didn’t even play that badly, which is why this hurts so much. I can’t be happy with how we lost but I still support my players, what they’ve done until now is brilliant. But today we feel devastated.”
Zidane did not say whether he felt Madrid still had a shot at defending the league title but vowed his side would rise again from this humbling defeat.
The double Champions League holders face Paris St Germain in a mouthwatering last-16 tie and are still in the King’s Cup.
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde said his side had not performed as they would have liked in the first half but praised them for outlasting their rivals physically.
“In the first half they pressed us very high, they doubled up in midfield and man marked us, and we couldn’t play as we know best,” Valverde said.
“We had chances and so did we but it was a case of persevering and in the second half we had more control, more chances, we scored goals and we won the game.
“In a game as physical as this you notice a difference as the game gets older and in the second half we could break with more freedom.”
Valverde also reflected on how far his side, who are unbeaten in the league and Europe, have come since their humbling defeats by Real in the Spanish Super Cup in August.
“This is a lesson for everyone. In football, things change very quickly,” he added. (Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Rex Gowar)