He is not even three years into the job, and already Zinedine Zidane has won a career’s worth of trophies as Real Madrid manager. He finished his first two seasons with consecutive UEFA Champions League titles. He won the FIFA Club World Cup twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, the 2017 championship of Spain’s La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup contested each August between the league regular-season winner and its open cup competition, the Copa Del Rey.
He has won a trophy every 111 days.
And, as Zidane acknowledged at the time, he was coaching for his job back in February. This is the business he’s chosen.
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This is Real Madrid. It isn’t “What have you done for me lately?” It’s “How much have you done?” It’s, “Yeah, that’s nice, but did you see how much FC Barcelona has accomplished?” Real Madrid managers are like the drummers in Spinal Tap.
Since 1994, the job has turned over 23 times, which means they’ve gone through about one coach per year. When Real Madrid takes the field Saturday in Kiev for the 2018 UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool FC, it will be the 148th match for the club under Zidane. That makes his tenure the third-longest of any Real coach since 1990.
Soccer analyst Kevin Egan, who covers La Liga closely for BeIN Sports, believes Zidane’s position is safe even if Real loses to Liverpool and misses the opportunity to win three straight Champions League titles. That would mean no league championship, no Copa Del Rey, no Champions League title in the 2017-18 season.
“Zidane has become a much better tactical coach over time. He still has the trust of the players. That’s not going away anytime soon. And he’s got depth like no other team,” Egan told Sporting News. “I think he’s built up enough credit.
“It’s a weird one, because the overall sensation around Real Madrid right now is this is the best team in world football. It seems to be this is the best team in Spain. Barcelona won a domestic double, and yet the feeling in Spain is that Real Madrid is on top of the pile yet again, back in the Champions League final.”
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Real Madrid’s journey to the final has been, in Egan’s estimation, the most difficult in the history of the competition. In the group stage, they were gathered with Borussia Dortmund (third in Germany last year) and Tottenham Hotspur (third in England).
After finishing second in the group behind Spurs, Real was matched against Paris St.-Germain in the round of 16. (PSG won the Ligue 1 title by 13 points). After surviving that two-game series by a 5-2 aggregate score, Real drew Juventus in the quarterfinals. (Juventus won Serie A for the seventh consecutive season). Real squeezed through by a 4-3 aggregate score, after Lucas Vazquez earned a penalty kick in added time and Cristiano Ronaldo converted. In the semifinals, the matchup was against Bayern Munich. (Bayern won the Bundesliga title by 19 points, its sixth in a row).
And now Real will face Liverpool, which won no such league honors but does hold the distinction of scoring more goals in a single Champions League campaign than any team before.
“It was the game against PSG in the round of 16 that I saw Real Madrid become Real Madrid again, with that killer instinct, that pride, that determination, that swagger we have seen from them over the past couple seasons,” analyst Stu Holden, who will call the game for Fox Sports, told SN. “That really seems to have united this team.
“I saw that added confidence, that they knew they were the defending champions, they’re the old guard, the team to beat. A lot of people were saying this PSG team, the money they spent, they might be the favorite. That was almost a shot across the bow, and for Real Madrid, with their egos and hearing their team talked about that way, they had a point to prove.”
Following a defeat against a poor Leganes team in the Copa Del Rey, Zidane acknowledged he likely would be removed if Real did not survive the PSG matchup. “Of course. That is really clear,” he told reporters. “I am responsible for this. I’m the coach. So I must find solutions. I must take on the situation. I will always keep fighting, keep working, try and look for things to make the team better.”
Since the first leg against PSG, Real Madrid is 14-4-4 and has averaged 2.6 goals per game. That includes a draw in the El Clasico rivalry against Barcelona and a second-leg loss and draw in the Champions League that were all Real needed to advance.
Only four opponents in that stretch failed to score, however, which is why Real Madrid might be predisposed to a more aggressive attack with Liverpool perhaps vulnerable to attacks against gifted but inexperienced right back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
“Zidane has shown intricacies that I think prove he has become a much better tactical coach,” Egan said. “In the Clasico, for example, he was able to go form a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 with the click of a finger. What he does is, Casemiro just steps back into a center-back role, Varane and Sergio Ramos go slightly wide and they’ll push Carvajal or Lucas Vazquez on the righthand side, and Marcelo on the lefthand side, much farther forward.
“That tactical switch, I think, would make Jurgen Klopp think a little differently about committing so many players forward. Because all of a sudden you have the attack of the BBC – Benzema, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – but then you’ve got Marcelo and Dani Carvajal pushing much farther forward on the flanks and you’ve got, all things considered, inexperienced fullbacks for Liverpool. The European champions are not going to be bullied tactically here. They’re not going to be the ones, in my opinion, to let Liverpool play the way they want to play.”
Ending his third full season at Liverpool, preparing for his second major European final – LFC lost to Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League title game – Klopp does not face the same degree of pressure as Zidane. There will be no talk of dismissing Klopp if LFC were to fall short.
Getting back to Champions League after qualifying only once in the previous seven seasons was an enormous forward step. Playing Real Madrid for the title seems almost a dream.
As a player, Zidane is considered perhaps the greatest in Real Madrid history. As a coach, he won the Champions League in each of his first two seasonS, one of those after taking over the club in the middle of the year. If Real comes up empty in its league, its domestic cup and the Champions League, though, is that enough for the person holding the toughest coaching job in all of sports?
“I think it would really come down to the idea: Is the man bigger than the team? Zidane’s legacy is probably bigger than any other player Real Madrid has had before, in part because he came back and cemented it in a new way, as coach,” veteran soccer journalist Andrea Canales told SN. “But is Real Madrid so big and so demanding that even what he has done in the past as a player and a coach is not good enough? The statement Real makes to the world is, ‘We expect to win the league, or be competing and coming close every time, no matter who is in charge. Because we are Madrid.’
“If they want to be, ‘We are Real Madrid, and we honor our players and this is our greatest player in history, and we are willing to give him more leeway,’ that’s the message they’ll send by sticking by Zidane if he doesn’t win the trophy.”