Marcelo backed by Real Madrid coach Solari despite poor start to season

Real Madrid coach Santi Solari has defended out-of-form Marcelo and insisted he is a "fundamental player" for the club.

Marcelo was again at fault for both opposition goals in Thursday's 2-2 La Liga draw at Villarreal, leading to further criticism from local pundits who claim the 30-year-old is being targeted as a weak link by opposition coaches.

Asked at a news conference ahead of Sunday's La Liga game at home to Real Sociedad whether critics were being unfair, Solari admitted things had been "difficult" this season for Marcelo but the club must get behind the team's vice-captain.

"Marcelo has had a very difficult first half of the season," Solari said. "It has not been easy for him, he had a serious injury and has been recovering bit by bit. Then there was the travel to the Club World Cup, then the winter break. He is getting his rhythm back.

"Over a season you can have better or worse games, but we must look after Marcelo, he is a fundamental player for the team and the club."

Thursday in Villarreal brought another injury for Gareth Bale following a clash with midfielder Javi Fuego just before half-time and he was replaced at the break.

"We think it is not so serious," Solari said. "[Bale] will have tests today and we all hope that he is back with us quickly."

A statement on Bale soon after the news conference confirmed: "Following the tests carried out today on our player, Gareth Bale, by the Real Madrid medical department, he has been diagnosed with a grade 1 muscle injury in his left leg. His recovery will continue to be assessed."

Solari has been unable to cut the seven-point gap to Barcelona since replacing Julen Lopetegui and the team's performances in December's narrow wins against relegation-threatened Huesca and Rayo Vallecano were heavily criticised by pundits.

"We know our start was not easy," the coach maintained in the face of pointed questioning from reporters.

"In La Liga the important thing is to keep climbing the table, to get from ninth to fourth has been difficult, we want to keep going, and La Liga is long.

"We must not underestimate [the importance of] draws, even though we want to win every game. We are happy with what we are doing. We must go out and battle every game, take on this difficult challenge. That is where you will see the winning character."

Sunday's opponents Real Sociedad have taken just one point from their last 11 league visits to the Bernabeu, but Solari said that new coach Imanol Alguacil would send out a dangerous team.

"They are a team with individual quality who play attacking football," Solari said. "They have changed coach and that can mean a change of system or style. They have good players, that will not have changed."