Zinedine Zidane can make football history this week, in only his first full season as a manager. But to do so he has to overcome the club where he made his name as a player, and a manager who has already written his name into the history books this season.
Real Madrid against Juventus in the Champions League final has so many fascinating facets that it is hard to know where to begin. There are dazzling players on both sides and individual battles to relish: Toni Kroos against Sami Khedira in midfield; Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema against Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
After outshining Leo Messi in the quarter-final, Paulo Dybala will hope to do the same to Ronaldo. Equally Madrid’s wingback Marcelo will be aiming to win the head-to-head with fellow-Brazilian Dani Alves, Juve’s star turn in the semi-final against Monaco.
Then there is the clash of the titans — Giorgio Chiellini versus Sergio Ramos — and the role of the Croatian wild-cards, Luka Modric in the middle, Mario Mandzukic in his new position on the left.
These are the contests which will decide the match. But the contest of minds and wills between the two men prowling the touchline will be equally fascinating.
Max Allegri and Zinedine Zidane have one thing in common. They both come from old port cities beside the Mediterranean. Allegri was born and brought up in Livorno (his father worked in the docks), Zidane comes from Marseille, 400 km to the west by sea.
However the two men arrived at the top of their profession by completely different routes. Allegri had a modest playing career for a dozen Italian clubs and his managerial career also began modestly until he moved to Cagliari and was headhunted by Milan. He started his time at Juventus in the face of some hostility, but built so successfully on the work of Antonio Conte that he has won three consecutive titles.
Under Allegri, Juventus have now won a record six titles in a row as well as reaching a second Champions League final in three years.
Zidane, by contrast, was one of Europe’s greatest stars as a player, winning everything for his country and his two main clubs. Everything except the Champions League at Juventus, that is, where he finished as a runner-up on two occasions, first against Borussia Dortmund and then against Madrid – the club he then moved to for a world record fee of just short of €80 million.
You can argue that Zidane’s success as a manager at Real Madrid was to be expected. He was clearly being groomed for the job ever since José Mourinho brought him in as a consultant in 2010. He then became assistant to Carlo Ancelotti before taking over the B team, Real Madrid Castilla.
When Madrid appointed Rafael Benitez as manager it did feel like a stop-gap measure, but even so there were doubts about Zidane’s lack of experience when he took over in January 2016. Seventeen months later it looks like an inspired appointment.
The club have just won the title for the first time in five seasons. Should they beat Juventus on Saturday, it will be their first domestic/European double for 59 years, while a back-to-back European title for the first time in the Champions League era will make it a historic.
It seems fitting that to make history, Madrid have to overcome the most durable and battle-hardened side of recent times. Juventus are perennial Italian champions, but have experienced constant heartache in the European Cup and Champions League.
Even when they won their first European title, on 29 May 1985 at Heysel Stadium, it was an evening marked by tragedy, an occasion of horror when many of their fans felt the match should not even have been played, let alone celebrated.
Their second victory, mercifully, came on home soil, on penalties against Ajax, but their record in finals involves six defeats, more even than Benfica, Europe’s other serial bridesmaids.
Allegri insists yesterday Real are the favourites to win on Saturday. “Real are in their third final in four years and are used to playing in them, even though we have been there twice in three years.
“The boys have given their all and we go there with greater knowledge and conviction than we had two years ago, even though we are playing against Real and they are the favourites.”