Zinedine Zidane can win his second trophy in just a little over six months in charge of Real Madrid when the European champions face Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup on Tuesday.
As Zidane prepares to start his first full season in charge, he will know as well as anyone that even another piece of continental silverware in Trondheim will not will be enough to guarantee him a job beyond 2016-17.
Two years ago, fresh from ending the 12-year wait for the fabled Decima – a 10th conquering of Europe – Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid, with assistant Zidane in tow, dispatched Sevilla 2-0 to lift the Super Cup in Cardiff.
The Club World Cup followed in December, during a run of 22 consecutive victories in all competitions – a record for the self-proclaimed biggest club on Earth.
Five months later, Ancelotti’s time was up. Ardent protest songs from the fans in their final home game of the season – a 7-3 destruction of Getafe – was not enough to keep Florentino Perez from wielding that tired old axe. Neither was the public support of Cristiano Ronaldo, a figure who can bend the ear of the president better than most in a white shirt.
“Ancelotti has won, in these two years, the affection of me personally, the board and the fans,” Perez said on May 25 last year, the day Ancelotti was fired. That affection was simply not enough to counter the disappointment of losing LaLiga to Barcelona yet again, and exiting the Champions League at the semi-final stage to Juventus. “The demands for a coach here are huge,” was the president’s rather extraneous explanation.
Zidane, tipped for centre-stage at the Santiago Bernabeu in the subsequent weeks, was overlooked for Rafael Benitez – a man whose Madrid roots and, crucially, natural spoken Spanish appealed greatly to Perez. But Zidane did not have long before his chance came: supporter unrest, player frustrations, bureaucratic embarrassment in the Copa del Rey and an absolute hammering in the Clasico had sealed Benitez’s fate long before he was officially dismissed in January.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) August 7, 2016
He was worth the wait. His first half-year in charge has been remarkable. Respect between players and coach was re-established (another public backing by Ronaldo helped here) and the fans were won around by a renewed commitment to high-pressing, attacking football – a style with which Benitez was rather unfairly disassociated. As for Perez, a 2-1 Clasico revenge win at Camp Nou in April was enough to keep his trigger-finger still.
With optimism restored, the results soon followed. A run of 12 straight league wins to conclude the season saw Madrid haul in Barca’s nine-point advantage at the top of the table and miss out on the title by just a point.
In the Champions League, inconsistent performances were rescued by sheer lung-bursting courage. Overturning a 2-0 deficit to Wolfsburg, scraping by Manchester City and holding their penalty shootout nerve in the final against Atletico Madrid were all triumphs borne out of a will to fight for the new coach as much as the application of talent.
Sharper football, better results, European glory at the expense of Atleti – it all feels eerily familiar. Add in a Super Cup against Sevilla, amid another transfer window of uncertainty and a defiant attempt to decide how to fit James Rodriguez into the team, and you might just think it was 2014 all over again.
In many ways, this is an important game for Zidane. A scarcity of major signings – only Alvaro Morata has arrived – and a humbling pre-season loss to Paris Saint-Germain have let a few doubts creep in for the first time.
Lifting the first trophy of 2016-17, especially with Ronaldo one of a number of key names missing as he rests a knee injury, would maintain confidence in the former France star’s methods at the start of another crucial campaign.
But regardless of this result, only the major trophies handed out in May will guarantee Zidane’s place on the Madrid bench heading into a third campaign. Ancelotti can vouch for that.
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