There’s no questioning that Zinedine Zidane has a unique relationship with the UEFA Champions League, as both a player and as a manager. However, it seems almost outrageous to say that Real Madrid and Zidane could repeat the historic European double that they won in 2016/17. After their victory over Liverpool on Tuesday night, though, it’s starting to look like the Frenchman could once again show us why he’s “Mr Champions League”.
This is not to say that Real Madrid will win both the La Liga title or the UEFA Champions League (or both), but you certainly can’t write them off as things stand. As a Real Madrid player, Zidane won the Champions League as part of the famous Galatico team in 2002, and in doing so he scored one of the greatest goals of all time. 12 years later, Zidane was in the dugout as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant when Real Madrid lifted the long awaited La Decima, their 10th European Cup/Champions League trophy. Two years later, Zidane would take over the reigns as manager from Ancelotti’s successor, Rafa Benitez, and win the Champions League in his debut season, with just a few months of managerial experience under his belt.
The next season he did it again, as we mentioned before, but this time taking home the Spanish league title in the same season – the first time Real Madrid won a league and European Cup double since the famous team that won just about everything in the late 50s and the 60s.
The following season, Zidane won the title again, before resigning from his post, having achieved an unprecedented “three-peat”. A year later, he returned to the dugout with Real Madrid already out of the competition, before he suffered his first defeat in a European knockout tie as a manager last season against Manchester City.
After two losses against Shaktar Donetsk and a draw against Mochengladbach, Madrid sat at the top of Group B when all was said and done, but their performances most certainly were not of the standard expected of European giants… quite the contrary. The defence looked shaky and attack impotent. And, in the league, throughout the season, Madrid have lacked consistency, have no real goalscoring threat beyond Karim Benzema. They’re also an old team that may well have run out of ambition. Key players like Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Marcelo are entering the twilight years of their career and the anointed marquee signing, intended to replace the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo, who spearheaded Zidane’s monumentally successful team during Zidane’s first spell in charge of Los Blancos, has been a complete and utter failure due to a terrifying injury record.
Add to that, Madrid’s recent transfer policy of bringing in young, talented players to fill the gaps left behind by legends of the game, who eventually have to retire or depart, like Ronaldo did, has not been particularly successful. Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and Fede Valverde made the best progress out of any of the young, high potential stars that have been brought in, but have all been set back by injury.
Vinicius Junior lacks a final product and consistency, while Martin Odegaard, Dani Ceballos and Brahim Diaz are among the young stars that have been sent out on loan but haven’t managed to gain the experience necessary to force their way into the first team. Ashraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilon, Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez have all departed the club in search of first team opportunities. In essence, the only young star to have well and truly broken into the first team in Zidane’s second spell seems to be Ferland Mendy, who has taken over the position from a rapidly declining Marcelo.
With this said, however, there is one particular feature of Zidane’s team this season that has lately become apparent, which draws from the successful formula that yielded a European double four years ago – Zidane’s “B” team.
In the resounding 3-1 victory over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the reigning Premier League champions who won the Champions League the season before last, Zidane named a line-up with Nacho and Eder Militao in defence, in the absence of the injury struck Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, who had tested positive for Covid-19 on the day. Lucas Vazquez was playing at right back (a common sight these days), while Vinicius played on the left wing in the position that is nominally supposed to be filled by would-be superstar Hazard.
On the weekend, we also saw Isco and Marcelo enter the fray as starters against Eibar, where they performed exceptionally well. Fede Valverde is consistently providing energy in midfield, covering every blade of grass, contributing in attack, defence and helping dictate the tempo of the game. Nacho, a utility player that always patiently waits for his chance to prove himself, wherever the boss needs him to play. And Zidane has started to count on Nacho too, with the Spaniard becoming an almost undisputed starter in the absence of Sergio Ramos lately. Real Madrid are undefeated in 12 games, winning 10 of those and Nacho has started the last 10.
More so, while Benzema is looking as lethal as always, scoring 18 goals this season, it’s now starting to look like Vincius and Asensio are starting to find some rhythm in front of goal, having scored the goals last night and there’s every chance that Madrid’s attack could piece together nicely, should the three get a consistent run of games together and create a trident as threatening as Benzema’s combination with Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in years gone by. Clean sheets are not as commonplace with Thibaut Cortois as they were in last season’s La Liga title winning campaign, but Zidane has a reliable defence to count on. The midfield, Modric, Kroos and Casemiro, can’t even be questioned… the trident is timeless and was the foundation of the three-peat under Zidane. Even in his advanced years, Modric is a phenomenon, while Kroos and Casemiro boast as much quality as they always have.
Madrid have a solid team of the highest pedigree, with a wealth of experience. Zidane has weathered two “crises” this season… bad strings of results that almost cost him his job. You’d have been laughed at if you suggested something like this during January or the beginning of December. Right now, however, Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals after their 3-1 win over the Reds, and are also three points behind Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga log (with a superior head-to-head record), and just two behind Barcelona, who they will meet in el clasico this weekend. Barcelona and Atletico also have to play each other in May.
Real Madrid’s fate is in their own hands, and Zidane has ANOTHER historic European double in sight. There’s a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the season, but you cannot write Mr Champions League off… which is bizarre, considering how poor his team has been, at times, this season.
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