Real Madrid are on the cusp of history as they stand just one win away from becoming the first side to defend their Champions League title.
But does Zinedine Zidane deserve more credit for it?
2016/17 was a season that was full of surprises and excitement. It was a season to rejoice for some, and a season that left a lot to ponder upon for the others. But,the curtains are set to draw on one of the most enthralling European seasons in recent memory, with just one game remaining before its culmination.
Real Madrid are set to take on Juventus in Cardiff. And just one game remains for Real Madrid to make history as they can become the first ever side to defend their Champions League title.
Alongside the club itself, manager Zinedine Zidane, too, stands on the cusp of reaching coaching immortality, as he, too, will become the first manager to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
It has only been 16 months since the Frenchman took charge at the Santiago Bernabeu. And despite being greeted to scepticism initially, he could make history on Saturday. Hence, The Hard Tackle believes he deserves more credit for taking Real Madrid to such a point. Here are four reasons why.
Handling Ronaldo – Zizou Did That With Care
Cristiano Ronaldo missed the start of the season as he nursed a knee injury he picked up in Portugal’s triumphant Euro 2016 final victory over France. When he finally joined up with the Real Madrid squad, the 32-year-old was slow off the blocks.
Ronaldo struggled to remain nearly as consistent and prolific that everyone had grown accustomed to over the years. Having set some really high standards for himself, this was a Ronaldo that was unrecognisable.
Hence, it didn’t come as a surprise when pundits started claiming that it was going to be the beginning of the end for the Portuguese superstar. However, Zidane stood by his star man throughout this period of struggle, publicly backing him and placing his faith in him.
As the season is set to draw to a close, it is clear for everyone to see that Ronaldo is well and truly back to his best. And the man who deserves to be credited for the player’s resurgence is none other than Zidane.
The Real Madrid boss recognised that Ronaldo had reached the stage of his career where it was not physically possible for him play at the highest level in each and every game of the season. And in order to get the best out of him – particularly in the most crucial of games, he needed to be rested from time to time.
The frequency of these resting periods grew in the latter stages of the season, as Ronaldo was left out of the match day squads for five of Real Madrid’s last eight away trips in the league. But, this has also been the period in which Ronaldo has rediscovered his prolific touch.
In his last nine games in all competitions, Ronaldo has scored an astounding 14 goals, including those in the quarter and semifinals of the Champions League.
The player also has the chance to finish as the Champions League top scorer for the 5th consecutive season, another feat after he became the 1st player in Real Madrid’s History to score 40+ goals in 7 Consecutive seasons.
So, while the Pichichi Award and the European Golden Boot may be beyond his reach, it goes without saying that Ronaldo has scored some of the most crucial goals of the season for Real Madrid – goals that are worth their weight in gold – something that may have not been possible without Zidane.
A Team That Doesn’t Just Bank on the Galacticos
Over the years, Real Madrid has famously – or infamously, depending on how you want to see it – adopted the policy of recruiting the best of players to the Santiago Bernabeu to create a team of Galacticos. Whether the policy has or hasn’t worked is a debate for some other time, though.
Meanwhile, under Zidane, Real Madrid was a team that had the aforementioned Galacticos in the squad, but didn’t exactly bank solely on them for success. And it has arguably reaped dividends for the Frenchman.
Youngsters like Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez became regulars in the first-team setup, while fringe players like Nacho got the opportunity to make a mark as well – something that had been unheard of at the Santiago Bernabeu for years.
However, such non-Galacticos ultimately played an instrumental role in Real Madrid’s success this season, particularly towards the end of the season, as the so-called B-team often produced a more eye catching brand of football. putting teams away with ease.
While most of these players are unlikely to feature from the kick-off on Saturday, they have certainly played a big part in Real Madrid’s title triumph, as well as progression to the Champions League final.
A Team That Is Ready To Dig Deep
Real Madrid, over the years, have been known to produce a brand of free flowing, attacking football that has made them one of the most prolific sides in recent memory. However, whenever they faced overly defensive teams, Los Blancos would often be rendered clueless to find ways to break those teams’ resolve.
It hasn’t been the same under Zidane, who has overseen a significant change in the style of football that Real Madrid play with. Make no mistake, they still are quite flamboyant on most occasions – the record of being the first ever club in Europe to score 100+ league goals in 8 consecutive seasons is a testament to the same.
But, it is the kind of football they play when not at their best that has been quite impressive. This is a Real Madrid side that has shown the grit and determination to dig deep in order to put sides away even on their worst days, often winning games in the dying stages of the match – surely, everyone remembers those late goals by Sergio Ramos.
The same qualities also saw Real Madrid create the Spanish record of going 40 games in a row without a loss, before it was finally snapped in January by Sevilla. Los Blancos also managed to find their to put the ball in the back of the net, and have created the record of scoring in the most consecutive matches – 64.
A key reason for this again goes back to Zidane’s policy of rotating his players on a consistent basis, which has now resulted in his entire squad finishing the season fresh, with a spring in their steps.
Against the formidable Juventus defence, one would need to dig deep into their reserves to topple the Italians, and if there’s one side that can be fancied to do it, it’s Real Madrid.
Overseeing The Resurgence of Casemiro
A key change that has been observed under the stewardship of Zidane is the return of a traditional defensive midfielder in Real Madrid’s first-team, coming in the form of Brazilian pocket rocket Casemiro.
The 25-year-old has resurrected his stuttering Real Madrid career ever since Zidane took charge at the Bernabeu. The Frenchman has entrusted Casemiro to sit in front of his side’s back-line, keep things tidy, and ensure the defensive third remains solid.
The player has been happy to be the anchor for his side, which has helped Real with their attacking output as well, with the playmaking duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos getting the license to venture forward more regularly.
Meanwhile, the front trio also have the freedom to go about their job in the final third without worrying much about their defensive duties. Suffice to say, Casemiro’s solid performances have brought the best out of the five attacking players, who have ensured Real Madrid’s dominance for large parts of the campaign.
On Saturday, when Real Madrid face off against Juventus, Zidane will again need Casemiro to be at his best to deal with the threat posed by the likes of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic. Should the Brazilian neutralise their threat, Zidane’s men could well be on their way to making history.
Zidane has enjoyed a stellar beginning to his spell as the manager of Real Madrid, but it can become even better for him on Saturday, as he could become the first Los Blancos coach to lead them to a league and European Cup double since 1958. Will he be able to create history? We don’t have long to see if it happens.