When Zinedine Zidane took over as Real Madrid coach just 17 months ago, and almost immediately started winning matches, the local media quickly labelled him a ‘lucky manager’.
A Spanish phrase suggesting Zidane had a flower stuck in a certain part of his body [which brought him luck] was widely used as fans and pundits in Madrid, and in Catalonia, thought the big name player but rookie coach had just fallen on his feet.
But the Frenchman now goes into tonight’s final against Juventus with the chance to make history by guiding the team to back-to-back Champions League victories, and with a growing realisation that nobody could do a better job in charge of Madrid.
Few really knew what to expect when Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez in January 2016 - even though the former galactico had been around the Bernabeu more or less constantly since retiring a decade earlier. His record as Castilla youth team coach was not great, and there was controversy over whether he had the necessary qualifications to manage in Spain.
As Madrid quickly gelled and almost reeled in Barcelona to take the 2015/16 La Liga title, many pundits thought Zidane’s greatest strength was allowing his multi-talented squad to manage themselves, a relief after Benitez had tried to control every little detail.
Even when they won last May’s Champions League against Atletico Madrid, there were grumbles around the Bernabeu about the team not really playing to its potential. Zidane himself has not really helped matters by [almost] always deflecting any praise which comes his way, and regularly talking about how much he was enjoying having such a great job.
“The pressure you notice more, for sure,” he said at Tuesday’s ‘open media day’ in Madrid. “But this is what we all like - the players, the fans, the coaches, the club - to play in finals. It is great. Winning La Liga, the feeling it gave me inside, was something spectacular.”
Zidane clearly is enjoying himself, especially with his team doing so well, but emitting such positive vibes is also strategic. Known as a player for a fierce temper and quite solitary nature, he has been genial and smiling with everyone as coach. The often awkward local media, who quickly prickled sensitive predecessors Benitez and Jose Mourinho, have been disarmed, avoiding the off-pitch controversies which have often derailed past Madrid seasons.
Clever man-management is clearly vital for success at the Bernabeu, and Zidane has had virtually no trouble with the dressing-room. Superstars Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, luxury back-ups in Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez, and emerging stars in Isco and Marco Asensio, have all performed for him.
“Zidane knows what a dressing-room is, the mentality,” midfielder Casemiro said this week. “He knows that a player is also a human being. Some days you are sad, some days angry. He knows how to talk to a player if something is going on. That is his strength, he knows how to connect, inside the dressing-room.”
Bit by bit, Zidane has been flexing his tactical muscles too. After a failed experiment with a three-man defence in January, recent months have seen the team playing very well in both 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 shapes. The supposed rookie got the better of former mentor Ancelotti and then Diego Simeone as Bayern Munich and Atletico again were seen off to reach another UCL final. They have scored in each of their last 62 games – another Spanish league record.
The clearest evidence of Zidane’s intelligence has been Ronaldo coming into his best form just at the right moment. In previous years the sensitive superstar played every minute as he battled with Barca’s Lionel Messi for goalscoring awards and personal prizes, only to become exhausted and limited by injury near the end.
Zidane has persuaded the 32-year-old to rest regularly throughout 2016/17. This has paid off with 13 goals in Ronaldo’s last nine games, including hat-tricks against both Bayern and Atletico in Europe, and key strikes to steer the team to a first La Liga title in five seasons.
The rotation policy was controversial at times, with Ronaldo telling Zidane to “go f*** yourself’ at least twice when being subbed off.
“Zidane has been managing the squad very intelligently,” Ronaldo said on Tuesday. “It’s not easy, because all the players want to play a lot. When Zidane came in last year, we had sensible expectations. This season he started from square one and he’s been showing just what a good coach he’s becoming. I don’t have any doubts that the team’s success is down to the excellent job Zidane has been doing.”
Zidane may not be the best manager in the world, and it remains to be seen how he would fare at Malaga, or Marseille, or even Manchester City. But he is the best possible coach for Real Madrid, and they are very lucky to have him.
Buffon; Alves, Bonucci, Chiellini, Sandro; Pjanic, Khedira, Cuadrado; Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain
REAL MADRID (probable):
Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo; Kroos, Casemiro, Modric, Isco; Benzema, Ronaldo
Listen to a preview of the Champions League final with European football writer Paul Little of the Daily Star and backpagefootball.com, Spanish-based football writer Dermot Corrigan and Italian football journalist Emanuele Giulianelli. Presented by Peter McNamara and Larry Ryan of the Irish Examiner.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved