If pressure creates diamonds, Zinedine Zidane should have a pile of precious stones large enough to rival Tiffany having dug in to weather the latest storm at Real Madrid.
Spirits at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano were understandably high after a 3-1 win over Atalanta sealed Real’s spot in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. They’ll face Liverpool in a rematch of the 2018 final, which happened to be the last time Zidane lifted the last of three straight European crowns before he first left Madrid:
In some ways, it’s coming full circle for a club that’s battled through transition, lost a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and saw Zidane leave only to return again. It was largely thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo (and Gareth Bale) that Real could win three Champions League titles in as many seasons not that long ago; without that duo, the club would, for the time being, be happy with the one this time.
And the 48-year-old will be forced to examine his priorities in excruciating detail if he’s to become the first manager to lift Europe’s top prize on four occasions come May. Having found themselves third in La Liga and 10 points below rivals Atletico on February 1—despite having played one game more—a league title defense once again looks plausible with that gap reduced to three points and the team unbeaten in 11 games across all competitions.
Zidane had only just retired as a player the last time Real successfully retained La Liga (2007-08), and undoubtedly some part of him will still be convinced to take the fight to those above.
Barcelona—sat second in La Liga and only two points in front—visit the Alfredo Di Stefano on April 10, five days after Real host Liverpool in the opening leg of their quarter-final clash. The change of venue already means this will be a different kind of Clasico for both teams, but the shift in priorities for each club might also lend itself to that altered atmosphere.
While the Blaugrana do have a Copa del Rey final opposite Athletic Club to think about (April 17), both they and Atletico are in some odd way blessed to have blinkered vision regarding domestic commitments. Their ejection from the Champions League’s last 16 is an edge that past iterations of Real might have been able to contend with and overcome, but the current squad is too reliant on certain leaders to run the risk of burnout for a league conquest that could prove futile anyway.
Sergio Ramos is one of those instrumental conductors who moves Real to the tempo of his choosing when fully fit, having only just returned after two months out following knee surgery. The Spaniard was absent for the first leg against Atalanta when Zidane’s side were almost fortunate to squeak a late 1-0 winner despite playing the vast majority of the game with a one-man advantage.
Compare that to the much more domineering display upon their captain’s comeback for the return trip, wherein a goal from the penalty spot typified his influence in all areas:
He’s hardly the only hook upon whom Real can hang their hats, as Karim Benzema has proved with four goals in his last three appearances. The ex-France international is another who has battled through the ire of those gazing in at the Santiago Bernabeu—even more so than his coach—and come through the other side regarded as a generational player in his position.
Los Blancos don’t have simple answers in how to replace either of those players when it comes to facing the elite teams in Europe. Promoting Mariano Diaz or Isco as a false nine may fool lesser opposition, but a run-in with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool means the Champions League campaign has moved past the point where square pegs in round holes will suffice.
It’s a similar story for the established midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, not solely because they’re still arguably the best group of their kind in soccer, but because of the intangibles they bring in clutch situations.
Zidane might be able to bring in the cover capable of covering for one among that trio, but Real lose a great deal of their usual potency if two were to be absent in the games to come. Federico Valverde has proved a worthy alternative to Casemiro when the Brazilian has been out, but the well runs a bit dry after that.
Modric—who is 35 and could leave Madrid when his contract expires this summer—played a leading role in Croatia’s run to the 2018 FIFA World Cup final and is attaining that kind of ageless reputation that once followed the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Former international team-mate Darija Srna told The Athletic’s Dominic Fifield of the playmaker’s mental strength
“I could speak for hours about his technique and talent, but the quality of Luka is his head.
“He’s a monster in his head. He’s always balanced. If he plays badly or if he plays well, it’s the same mood. You can’t see the difference in him when he loses. He is angry, of course, but his temperament is always the same. Because of that, he is the best in the world.”
Injuries and other absences have led squad rotation to become a common theme for Zidane this season. In hindsight, the manager might regret the decisions to send Martin Ødegaard and Luka Jovic on loan to Arsenal and Eintracht Frankfurt, respectively, while the extensive injuries suffered by record signing Eden Hazard have been a huge hindrance:
If we’re to look upon those misses in a positive light, having a smaller squad has forced Zidane to examine academy graduates like Sergio Arribas, Marvin Park and Victor Chust in greater detail. Those prospects are unlikely to play much part in the higher-stake theatrics to come, however, when it’s the more established heroes upon whom the manager will rest his responsibilities.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest Real submissively hand La Liga to their rivals; leaders Atletico look the most staggered they have all season, while Barcelona have been at their most vulnerable in some years for parts of the campaign. It also plays a factor that a potential semi-final would take place against Chelsea or Porto—surely the easier half of the draw—while one of Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain are guaranteed to take the other out in the last eight.
It was evident the coach is aware of the fatigue factor after substituting Ramos off 60 minutes into the recent 3-1 win over Atalanta, for fear of his talisman re-injuring himself so soon after surgery.
Only a certain type of toughness has delivered Zidane to this point, at least in his own defenses against the media, but his attitude towards the squad has always been more caring.
It was after Real’s shock 2-1 defeat to Levante in January (their most recent loss) that the Frenchman refused to turn on his players despite a third loss in four games, the kind of loyalty his players won’t soon forget. This squad is still largely made up of those who were present for the Champions League wins of 2016 thru 2018, and those same players will be determined to prove one doesn't need a Ronaldo or a Bale to lift the trophy.
A league and European double is still doable, but one or two injuries (depending where they are) is all it might take to lead Real to their second trophy-less term in three seasons. Zidane has the gems in Madrid capable of pulling off the kind of miracle only a few clubs in Europe could muster, but keeping them polished enough to gleam in the right moments is his biggest dilemma ahead.