By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) – Real Madrid playmaker James Rodriguez is working hard to get back to top form and remains a key member of the team, coach Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday.
Rodriguez was sidelined by a thigh injury while on duty with Colombia in September and has struggled for form and fitness since his return to action at the end of October.
The 24-year-old, who joined Real from Monaco for around 80 million euros ($86.3 million) after dazzling at the 2014 World Cup finals, has made only seven starts this season in La Liga and one each in the Champions League and King’s Cup.
Zidane will take charge of his third game at Real Betis on Sunday since taking over from the sacked Rafa Benitez and said Rodriguez was ready to play if selected.
The Colombian’s chances of starting have improved due to an injury to Real’s Wales forward Gareth Bale, who damaged a calf muscle in last weekend’s 5-1 home victory over Sporting Gijon.
“You will see tomorrow but he (Rodriguez) had a very good week in training like all the players,” Zidane told a news conference previewing Sunday’s game in Seville.
“I am very happy with what he is doing and he is working very hard,” added the former Real and France midfielder. “We know what an important player he is for the team.”
Zidane dismissed media reports that Rodriguez may be short on fitness because he is enjoying the nightlife in the Spanish capital a bit too much.
“They annoy me but we have to ignore the rumours,” he said.
“He told me he is relaxed and the important thing for him is to focus on his work. The idea is to get him on top form and make sure he is prepared for what lies ahead.”
Real are third in La Liga with just over half the season played, two points adrift of second-placed champions Barcelona, who play at Malaga later on Saturday.
Leaders Atletico Madrid, hosting Sevilla on Sunday, are two points ahead of Barca, who have a game in hand over their main rivals.
Zidane reiterated that he was happy with his squad and that there were no plans to bring in reinforcements in January despite a FIFA ban on registering players for the next two transfer windows.
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(Editing by Ed Osmond)