“This is not a final for me,” Zidane calmly told reporters at the club’s Valdebebas training ground. “If we play well, with the team we have, we have a big chance. The rest, like what might happen in the future, I do not think about. Some things are completely out of my hands. I have nothing to prove. What people say about me, or my team, I am not interested in, that’s the truth.”
Zidane should have plenty to worry about. Fans and pundits around the Bernabeu have been saying a lot lately, most of it uncomplimentary about him or his players.
A side which won five trophies during 2017, including the Champions League and La Liga double, have been horribly inconsistent through recent months. They sit fourth in La Liga, a full 17 points behind runaway leaders Barcelona, and were last month embarrassingly eliminated from the Copa del Rey by humble neighbours Leganes.
Madrid president Florentino Perez is not a man known for his patience with coaches who end a campaign without a major trophy. The summer could bring a big squad shake-up too, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale among the ageing stars potentially shown the door.
Meanwhile, PSG coach Unai Emery comes to Madrid talking of a supposed “new order” in European football. PSG’s Qatari owners have been able to attract younger, flashier attacking stars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, both of whom Perez has tried unsuccessfully to sign in the past. Logic suggests a loss over two legs would signal the end of Madrid’s cycle of success.
However, to hear Zidane tell it yesterday, the situation is set up perfectly for all the big personalities in the Bernabeu dressingroom to re-assert their dominance on the biggest stage of all.
“I’m very happy to have a chance to be a part of such important games,” the Frenchman said in his typically understated manner. “I don’t feel any particular pressure. We’ve prepared this week, as we always do. We’re happy to play this game tomorrow. These players live for these type of games.”
History backs up Zidane’s argument, to an extent. Every one of Madrid’s XI tonight have won at least two Champions Leagues, most have won three, while Ronaldo has four. PSG have never been past the quarter-finals, and last year crumbled humiliatingly when set to eliminate Barcelona.
Also, Europe has often come along and rescued ailing Madrid seasons. In 2001/02, they were out of the title race by October, beaten at home by Deportivo La Coruna in the Copa del Rey, but finished the season with Zidane scoring a spectacular winner in the Champions League final.
There were similar stories in 1997/98, 1999/00 and 2013/14, when Zidane was assistant to manager Carlo Ancelotti.
The last week has seen figures, including former coach Vicente Del Bosque and Zidane’s ex-team-mates David Beckham and Ronaldo Nazario all reminisce about how the worse Madrid played domestically, the better they performed in Europe.
There have been signs recently that the current Ronaldo is coming into form too. Tax problems with the Spanish government and a public stand-off with Perez over a pay-rise saw the Portuguese star try to force an exit from the club last summer. Then came a disastrous four goals from 83 shots in his first 13 La Liga games, but the now 33-year-old has seven strikes in his last four outings, which suggests he might be warming up for the startling personal form which drove the team to the double last season.
That was the narrative Zidane was keen to sell yesterday, and the Frenchman made a pretty convincing case. Madrid may have lost at home to Leganes and Villarreal in recent weeks, but when the Champions League music plays, they do tend to rise to the occasion.
Champions League (Rd of 16, 1st leg): Real Madrid V PSG
Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, 7.45pm
Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
eir Sport, BT Sport
Real Madrid 7/5, PSG 7/4, Draw 13/5