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Questions hang over James but there are signs of progress

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The under-fire Colombian had mixed fortunes at Betis but the signs are that he is moving in the right direction.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It has been a curious few days for James Rodriguez.

Defended by Zinedine Zidane over reports surrounding his professionalism in training, the Colombian made his first start under the new Real Madrid coach at Betis on Sunday night and used the post-match mixed zone in Seville to hit out at those same reports.

James has split the fans this season. One of last season's golden boys after starring in the World Cup and arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu for megabucks, that same flair and golden smile has not been forthcoming in his second season at the club. That difficult second album, if you like.

Zidane seemed to have a preference for Jese as his back-up in attack after his first two matches at the helm resulted in the club's youth product being preferred from the bench to the former Monaco and Porto man. It was perhaps a surprise to some that the Frenchman opted for James as a starter on Sunday.

Or perhaps not. The Colombian's qualities have not diminished overnight and, as suggested in my pre-match article about Bale's short-term replacement, he seemed to have the hunger to silence his critics. Zidane thought so too.

What was apparent on Sunday at the Benito Villa Marin was James' confidence - or lack of it. There was a clear difference in his, and indeed the team's, performance after Karim Benzema got Madrid on level terms in the second half. James provided the assist, his fifth of the season in La Liga, and although questions remain over whether he was offside, he at least played a key part in Los Blancos leaving with a point.

That part seemed to lift the Colombian. Madrid fans were accustomed to wonder goals from the 24-year-old last season and he showed hints of his former self shortly after when his superb cross-cum-shot was pushed out for a corner by former Madrid goalkeeper Antonio Adan. Los Blancos were pushing for a winner and James was central to that push.

Before that Benzema assist he showed inconsistency that has blighted his campaign so far. The best example of a frustrating campaign so far when second half substitute Dani Carvajal tried to link-up play with the Colombian only for him to misread Carvajal's thoughts and allow the ball to trickle out of play.

James showed bursts of quality but it is clear he is not yet back at the high standards he set last season. It would be unfair to pin yesterday's sub-standard result on the attacker given Madrid failed to really get going across the park against a side they should be seeing off if they want to stand any chance of winning La Liga.

The decision to play Danilo instead of Carvajal also came into question while the pace and power of Bale in attack was lacking, as was Sergio Ramos' leadership from the back. The performance was more perhaps a sign that Zidane does not have a magic wand to wave over his squad. Perhaps the biggest problem was not the coach after all.

However, James' performance against Betas will be assessed more than most. With Bale fit, he is in direct competition with Isco for a starting role and it therefore makes sense that the two players are compared. With the money that was spent on him last season, there is a seemingly unwritten pressure for the Madrid coach to play the most expensive players, as hinted to by an article in the Daily Mail over the weekend which suggests the shadow of president Florentino Perez still hangs over the selection policy.

It can be assessed but fitness must also be taken into account. While Zidane and the player himself defended his professionalism last week, the Madrid coach pointed out that the Colombian still needs to return to tip-top form fitness-wise. Until that happens, James cannot be handed a fair assessment.

"It's important for him to get in shape like everyone else," Zidane said of James in the pre-match press conference on Saturday. "The idea is for him to be at his best and prepared for what comes every week. He's ready to play." He added: "James has been very good this week [in training], like everyone else, and I'm happy with what he's doing. He's working very hard and we know how important he is to the team. What's being said about James annoys me, but I've cast those rumours aside."

With Bale expected to be in the treatment room until the Champions League clash with Roma next month, James has further chances to get back to full fitness and return to his full potential. If the Colombian shows the same desire and dedication in training this week there is every chance Zidane will start him for the second game running when Espanyol visit the Spanish capital on Sunday night.

"I want to be fit in order to help everyone," James said in the mixed zone after the 1-1 draw at Betis. "Everything that is being said is untrue. I am relaxed and feel good. I always give everything in training. Those around me know that I am a great professional. I train strongly every day."

That will be music to the ears of Madridistas ahead of two games against sides at the wrong end of the table in Espanyol and Granada respectively - two games in which James needs to shine. The questions remained after Sunday night's stalemate but James at least showed he is moving in the right direction. Only his football will do the talking over the coming weeks.

If Zidane manages to get James back to the standards he set last season, the Colombian will almost be like a January signing for Madrid.