Cristiano Ronaldo assumed the familiar mantle of Real Madrid match-winner in Saturday’s Clasico, but his goal to sink Barcelona at Camp Nou might have a greater impact on the long-term future of coach Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane’s path to leading a side in football’s most famous club rivalry began when Barca handed out a chastening 4-0 beating at the Santiago Bernabeu in November – a result that marked the beginning of the end for Rafael Benitez’s unpopular tenure.
Chided for being too defensively minded to coach Madrid’s galacticos, Benitez picked a terrible moment in a tactically calculated career to become cavalier.
A theoretically dazzling midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez lined up behind Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.
The problem was Madrid were rarely able to win meaningful possession from their opponents and Benitez’s gameplan unravelled spectacularly.
Still, the dye was cast – Benitez was a defensive curmudgeon, even while racking up subsequent 8-0 and 10-2 wins over Malmo and Rayo Vallecano, and club icon Zidane was waiting in the wings to restore the requisite style to the Madrid brand.
The Zidane era began with home romps against Deportivo, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol but the former France great – as fierce as he was stylish on the pitch – was unlikely to allow himself to be a mere cheerleader for Florentino Perez’s ill-conceived vision, despite mixed results in charge of the club’s Castilla side.
Madrid’s best moments under their free-spending president have come when the likes of Vicente del Bosque, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have laced the fantasy football with pragmatism.
By selecting Casemiro to anchor his midfield at Camp Nou and banishing James and Isco to the bench, Zidane followed suit.
The Brazil international looked on as an unused substitute when Barca knocked lumps out of a coach he appeared ideally suited to help back in November; on Saturday he fearlessly tackled a team of superstars chasing 40 games undefeated.
Tackled being the operative word. Casemiro’s eight challenges were more than double the amount made by any other player, with an uncompromising and fair crunch into Andres Iniesta after the half hour demonstrating Madrid were not about to be taken for a ride this time.
Two blocks and three interceptions also featured among Casemiro’s invaluable dirty work, which in turn freed up Kroos to play in a more advanced role and set up Karim Benzema’s equaliser after Gerard Pique gave Barcelona the lead.
Bale worked tirelessly in defence and attack down the flanks before combining with Ronaldo to down Barca in the immediate aftermath of Sergio Ramos’ reckless red card.
It was a tactical approach Benitez would presumably endorse, but Zidane now carries an authority at Madrid his predecessor could have only dreamt of.
He is the third man to win El Clasico as a player and a manager after Alfredo Di Stefano and Del Bosque – a status he achieved by having the conviction to stick with a steely tactical plan that focused on disarming Barca rather than being drawn into a shootout.
Long-term planning is never advisable for an incumbent of the Bernabeu dugout but Zidane showed on Saturday that he at least has the gumption to succeed or fail on his own terms and not as a puppet of Perez.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!