Zinedine Zidane has achieved more in his two years as a senior club manager than most will achieve in their entire career.
The Frenchman, already a Real Madrid legend having amassed over 200 appearances for the club and scoring a spectacular winner in the Champions League final, has delivered two European titles in as many seasons and solidified Real’s place at the pinnacle of the football mountain once again.
So why, then, do Real enter into Saturday’s match against their biggest rivals, the team they wiped the floor with less than four months ago, with seeds of doubt? Why could defeat to Barcelona this weekend have a near-fatal impact on their hopes of retaining La Liga?
The curtain-raiser for the Spanish season, the two-legged Super Cup, seemed to suggest that a chasm had formed between the two clubs – Barca were still adjusting to the loss of Neymar and their attempts to pry Philippe Coutinho were hitting a brick wall – all against the backdrop of increasing pressure on president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Meanwhile,Real’s well-oiled machine under Zidane looked like it was set to thrive, with 21-year-old prodigy Marco Asensio at the forefront of the new order.
The gulf in class was so apparent that Barca defender Gerard Pique lamented his side’s supposed “inferiority” to their biggest challengers:
“In the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid. We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club.”
Yet fast forward a few months and the landscape of Spanish (and European) football looks a bit different. Barca, having found a rhythm despite the loss of Neymar and injury to his €105m replacement Ousmane Dembele, have brushed off any notion of a crisis and currently sit top of La Liga, unbeaten in the league this season and with 13 wins out of 16.
For Real, though, it’s a little less rosy. They currently sit in fourth place, eleven points behind Barca and their failure to top their Champions League group means that they now have to navigate past a Paris Saint-Germain side determined to finally start making their mark on the European stage in the last 16 in February.
The eleven point gap between Real and Barca could become 14 by close of business at the Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon – it could be enough to start making Florentino Perez jittery. And when Perez gets jittery, he demands changes.
Not to suggest that Zidane should be immediately worried about his job. Any manager that can force Perez to shelve the Galactico policy and focus on building a youth-oriented dynasty at the Bernabeu clearly has a large degree of clout. That, however, will only get him so far.
All logic suggests that it would be unthinkable to even consider sacking a manager that delivered two Champions League titles, a first domestic league title in five years, the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup all within his first 24 months at the club. Unthinkable, of course, until one remembers that Real Madrid are a club that exists outside of the usual realms of logic and normality. They’ve fired Champions League-winning managers before and Perez wouldn’t hesitate in doing it again if he deemed it necessary.
Injuries, to a point, have played their part in Madrid’s form this year; they have been shorn of much of their defence for parts of the campaign while Gareth Bale’s problems have been well-documented. Combine that with Cristiano Ronaldo’s wastefulness in front of goal (domestically at least) and the nagging feeling that Karim Benzema is the upgradeable weak link of that attack and it paints a picture of a pretty disjointed side.
Zidane has taken the interesting step this season of utilising a diamond 4-4-2 midfield, designed to make the most of Ronaldo’s finishing ability while accounting for his declining pace, while also providing an outlet for Isco in his favoured number ten role (penny for James Rodriguez’s thought’s at that particular occurrence) – and while that works for the starters in this eleven (at least until Bale makes a solid return), it seems blunt tactically, and with a pair of off-form strikers up front it means that a lot of matches have been ending in frustration lately.
This season is arguably Zidane’s biggest in terms of proving himself as one of the elite managers. That might sound somewhat ridiculous to even say given the success he has already achieved, but this is the season that he has to start planning for life after Ronaldo, that he might have to make big decisions about the respective Real futures of Bale and Benzema, that he has to decide if he is to go all in on the Real ‘youth dynasty’ approach (and might have to battle Perez all over again when that Galactico itch strikes the president).
Saturday’s Clasico won’t directly decide Zidane’s fate, nor should it, but a sizeable gap in the title race will give rise to a few questions. An early European exit in February though would be when Zidane starts to really panic.
Ernesto Valverde navigated his way through a potential crisis at Barca, now Zidane must do likewise at Real. And what better game to start the comeback than the Clasico?
In the final Mixer Football Podcast of 2017, we select our favourite goals, matches and performances of the year, as well as our usual roundup of the latest League of Ireland news.