Calm, smiling and careful to say no more than he absolutely had to, Zinedine Zidane spoke with the assurance of a managerial veteran in the bowels of the Etihad Stadium on Monday.
It was easy to forget the Real Madrid boss is in the fourth month of his first senior coaching post, as he batted away questions about his tactical approach for Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final against Manchester City – an opponent he praised warmly.
As arguably the finest player of his generation, whose mastery on the field helped him to every major honour worth claiming in football, Zidane knows how history can sometimes weigh on such occasions and how, in these terms, the deck is stacked in Madrid’s favour.
This is the trophy 10-time winners Madrid crave above all others; the club holding a romantic attachment to a prize Alfredo Di Stefano and company more or less made their own private property in the mid-to-late 1950s.
“We know what sort of image we project to the world,” Zidane said. “It’s always a proud moment to see us in the semi-final, the last four of such a great tournament.”
Bale and Zidane, somewhere in the scrum pic.twitter.com/uA9ZAVCIWU
— Dom Farrell (@DomFarrell1986) April 25, 2016
City’s fanbase also know what image they wish to project. The Champions League anthem will again be booed at the Etihad.
While Madrid reminisce over winning the first five editions of the European Cup – the most glorious first impression – City, now in their fifth Champions League season, can point towards co-efficient gripes, Financial Fair Play and bafflement at certain UEFA ruling. Certainly more red tape than red roses.
Where their campaign as an established Premier League force has fallen flat too often this season, there is a sense of devil-may-care insurgency surrounding City’s progress to last four that recalls the early days of Sheikh Mansour’s takeover.
Both goalkeeper Joe Hart and captain Vincent Kompany challenged fans to produce an ear-splitting din and are unlikely to be disappointed. City can once again revel in feeling like the new-monied guest at a party no one meant to invite them to.
However, in their soon-to-be-former manager Manuel Pellegrini, the aristocrats versus upstarts analogy falls down.
“I have been with Villarreal before in this stage, it was a very good thing that we played against Arsenal but for different reasons we couldn’t reach the final,” the Chilean said.
“Also, with Malaga [against Borussia Dortmund] in the quarter-final there were some mistakes [by the officials]. But tomorrow is a different thing with another club.”
Those runs with unfancied clubs into deep Champions League waters in 2006 and 2013 respectively mean the stately Pellegrini, and therefore City, should be able to count on having the edge in the dugout. Zidane is more likely to experience previously unknown dilemmas than his opposite number.
With Madrid talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema fit to line up alongside Gareth Bale and City’s superstar striker Sergio Aguero set to be supported by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, both coaches know they have forward talent primed to do considerable damage.
As Pellegrini put it, when making the key decisions it will be time for “a hot heart but a cold mind”. Marco Materazzi would attest this is not always Zidane’s forte.
But the 43-year-old has done enough to suggest he can make the right moves over recent weeks.
Zidane ripped the La Liga title race open by beating bitter rivals Barcelona and Madrid’s blip in 11 wins from 12, the quarter-final first-leg defeat to Wolfsburg, was swiftly avenged.
Having talked up the importance of teamwork, with Bale harmonising from the same hymn sheet at the pre-match news conference, Zidane also offered a gentle reminder of his involvement as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant when Madrid scooped La Decima in 2014.
“In 2014 there was the same atmosphere in the dressing room,” he said, plucking a notable string to his bow. “I noticed the players were really focused, aiming for that goal. We’re in the final straight and we’re ready for anything.”
If the players are as ready as their coach appears, City will have their work cut out.
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