Zinedine Zidane is Real Madrid's proven survivor
The French coach picked up the crucial victory on Tuesday evening against Galatasaray, saving himself and his team. And it was not for the first time...
Zinedine Zidane arrived in Istanbul knowing that he was walking a tightrope with the name of Mourinho floating over his head. After the weekend debacle in Mallorca, which saw bitter rivals Barcelona replace his Real Madrid at LaLiga's summit, adding to a disappointing start in the Champions League group stage, doubts over his place in the Bernabéu dugout were growing. Tuesday's game became a 'final' for the coach that had won the last three Champions League's in which he was in charge, even though it was he who accepted the challenge of returning to a side that had long since lost a certain magic that he had left behind nine months earlier. Zidane admitted at the pre-match press conference in Turkey that the rumours were bothering him but was clear that giving his best and thinking positive was what his focus was.
Another notable comment was that 'the past was in the past' as if to say that he can put his attentions onto a better run of results going forward. Maybe, though, looking to the past is exactly what he can do for reasons to be positive. Ever since taking the reins at Los Blancos, Zidane has somehow managed to turn around situations where it looked as though he may go under. And in Turkey he took another breath of air.
As soon as he arrived, in January of 2016, Zidane knew how he was going to revitalise a squad that had lost its direction. Sitting third in LaLiga, four points off the leader Barça, the club was missing a smile. But it wasn't going to be easy. Madrid picked up the goal count and their morale, but not their position in the table. Day 26 was their first major obstacle as Atlético launched an attack of the Bernabéu. A goal from Griezmann and a tactical lesson from Diego Simeone had Florentino Pérez hearing shouts of 'resign!' and the team slipped 12 points away from Barça.
"In a game like that, we had to do more, run more, get stuck in..." Zidane said after the loss. A change in attention to the dressing room saw the potential crisis averted, as Madrid went on to win all their remaining games in LaLiga, closing to within a point of eventual title winners Barça. In the middle of that climb, Zidane also saw an awaiting chasm in the Champions League. Just days after beating Barça at Camp Nou (1-2), they lost the first leg of the quarter-final in Wolfsburg 2-0. The coach knew how to maintain the morale of his players and up stepped his talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to save him from the fall. A hat-trick with no reply set the club on their way to lifting the trophy, the start of an incredible treble.
In the following season, Zidane achieved a historic double (LaLiga and Champions League), but it wasn't all plain sailing for the Frenchman. After winning the European Super Cup against Sevilla and taking 12 points from the first four league fixtures, Madrid wobbled to four consecutive draws against Villarreal, Las Palmas and Eibar domestically, and against Borussia Dortmund in Europe.
That slip up saw Madrid lose top spot in LaLiga and, as are the standard at the club, the word 'crisis' began to surface at press conferences. "I will not overreact," he responded bondly, and with that dose of calm along with his optimism, he went on to give the club their 33rd national crown, their 12th European Cup...with a Club World Cup to boot.
With so much success in such little time, most managers would expect a free ride if things didn't go to plan. But this is Real Madrid, and the season after his second consecutive Champions League glory was arguably his most turbulent season. The squad was already beginning to show signs of wear and tear, the league title was waved goodbye as early as December (finally finishing 17 points off Barça) and they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey in the quarter-finals by Leganés. We found out later that it was this last defeat that sowed the seed in the mind of Zidane that his time as Madrid boss should be brought to an end soon. He saw then that there was a complacency and drop in efforts in his players and that his philosophy was no longer having its effect.
But instead of adding to the tension with punishments, the Frenchman put on a positive face, embraced his old guard, and turned all the focus onto the Champions League. He went on to lift an unprecedented 13th. After that, as few people will forget, he communicated his decision to leave. But nine months later, a desperate Florentino, who had welcomed and dismissed Lopetegui and Solari, had convinced him to return.
He finished last season as he did, third and 19 points off Barça, but with a grace period allowing him to reach the summer transfer window for a rebuild. The pre-season 7-3 defeat against Atlético was one of the warning signs that much work lay ahead but injuries and mixed success in bringing in the players he wanted have added to the difficult situation.
This season, Zidane appears to have seen himself through his first mini-crisis. In saying that, the tightrope that he is currently balancing on could throw him off at any time. The Clásico reprieve may be a blessing in disguise, but the next challenge lies not far ahead...
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