Much as we are enjoying the pictures of Jose Mourinho off down the corner shop to get a pint of milk and a loaf of bread, football will not be the same until he’s back in work. At the start of March it looked as if he might be making his return at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Real Madrid had just been beaten by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and Zinedine Zidane looked very non-plussed by it all. There were stories that he never wanted the responsibility anyway and that president Florentino Perez was going to have to call on his old friend Jose this summer.
Then something happened, something that will mean Saturday’s day of destiny at the top of the table directly involves the team that at one point were as many as 12 points off the pace.
Zidane started to look like a Real Madrid manager and not like that cab driver mistaken for an
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique and Real Madrid Coach Zinedine Zidane
Image credit: Reuters
Zizou has always had the charisma; he can put more medals than most on the table; and he also has a little of the necessary menace when a dressing room needs it. But those who watched him coach the B-team wondered if he could put on training sessions, pick teams, and make changes mid-game that would give him a chance of succeeding where Rafa Benitez had not this season.
Eleven wins in the league in his last 11 games have answered all the questions and the slightest slip from Barcelona at Granada on Saturday and Madrid – providing they beat Deportivo away – will have won La Liga against all the odds.
In fairness to his predecessor Zidane had ripped a couple of chapters out of the Benitez handbook to guide Real Madrid back towards the title. Putting faith in Lucas Vazquez; not relying on James Rodriguez; limiting Isco’s starts in big games and playing Casemiro as a holding midfielder so releasing Toni Kroos into areas of the pitch where he actually wants to be playing, were all things that Benitez was getting frowned at for wanting to do in the early part of the season. Zidane has slowly but surely realised Benitez was right and his also benefitted from Gareth Bale's exceptional recent form.
On his own admission the French coach still stumbles with his Spanish at times and that can make him sound less than assured in press conferences but there has been a headstrong confidence to the way he has embraced the job that has dismissed the idea that he might be out of his depth. He has also been pragmatic and even conservative – perhaps something those who doubted him beforehand would never have expected.
Zinedine Zidane (Real) Wolfsburg
Image credit: AFP
That first half in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final when he instructed his full-backs not to attack and set up his team just to make sure Manchester City did not score, ultimately paid dividends. It prevented them getting the kind of dream start that Wolfsburg had got in the previous round and they just never got going.
In the second leg against Wolfsburg he also showed he could learn from his mistakes – he picked Dani Carvajal and not the expensively acquired Brazilian Danilo who played in the first leg and whose £23m signing seems as bizarre as that of Fabio Coentrao five years earlier.
The real test will come next season when his name will have been on several of the signings, and when he will have to survive where familiarity breeds contempt at breakneck speed – even for club legends.
But he will be there to start that first full season. And that in itself is not something that looked likely back at the start of March. Whatever happens on Saturday in the last La Liga game of this campaign, and in the Champions League final on May 28 he will stay in charge.
Things have turned out that way because after being 12 points behind the fact that Real Madrid could win the league this weekend is a minor miracle – maybe not a Jamie Vardy winning the Premier League heartwarming miracle, but a miracle all the same.
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