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Zidane backs Benzema to become stronger after criticism

Zinedine Zidane believes Karim Benzema could emerge as a stronger player following criticism of the Real Madrid striker's form.

The France international has scored just one LaLiga goal since October and none in his last six appearances in all competitions, prompting sections of the Santiago Bernabeu support to target him with whistles and jeers during home matches.

Benzema has saved his better performances this season for the Champions League, however, having registered five goals and one assist in their unbeaten run through the group stage.

And Zidane is confident that the 29-year-old can become even better following scrutiny of his performances, starting with Wednesday's last-16 first leg against Napoli.

"People can think whatever they want," said the Madrid boss. "Day to day, he looks good, motivated in what he does. I'm happy with his work.

"Of course I'd like Karim to score – it's not only me – but the important thing is the way he does his work in that position. He plays in a way that helps others to score. There's a great understanding between him and Cristiano [Ronaldo].

"It hurts me when my players are criticised, but sometimes it helps them to grow."

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Zidane is expecting Napoli to provide a stern test for the holders and has urged his side to shut out Maurizio Sarri's free-scoring side in order to give themselves the best chance of going through.

"In a knockout like this, you know that you've got the away leg to play and the important thing at home is to keep a clean sheet," he said.

"But the message I want is for us to do what we've done recently. We know that it's a 50-50 game. We have the first match at home and we can hurt our opponents.

"I think Sarri is doing well, his team play really attractive football and the results he's getting are good.

"Defensively they are good and they move very quickly. They have small players who are very good technically. But we have our weapons.

"In order to stop them, we're going to have to concentrate, because we're going to suffer.

"We know the difficulty of this competition. We're going step by step. Of course, we all want to win the Champions League, but it's a long and hard road that we're on.

"It's one game, it's very important, we know the importance of it. But the final is in Cardiff. We have this tie first and we have to play it.

"Madrid will always be a favourite in this competition, but the badge does not guarantee that you'll win."

Zidane praised the impact of James Rodriguez when he came off the bench in Madrid's 3-1 win at Osasuna on Saturday – a result that took them back to the top of LaLiga, with two games in hand on second-placed Barcelona.

But the former France star would not say whether James had done enough to earn a place in the starting line-up for Napoli's visit.

"James is ready to play and we'll see the line-up tomorrow [Wednesday]. I'm not going to reveal it now," he said.