If there is anything that can spike Clasico tension levels beyond their traditionally dangerous highs, it is Luis Enrique meeting Zinedine Zidane.
The former France great will take charge of Real Madrid against eternal rivals Barcelona for the first time on Saturday with something of a score to settle against his opposite number.
In April 2003, with the game level at 1-1, Zidane sparked a huge on-field shoving match at the Santiago Bernabeu after catching Carles Puyol with a flailing arm. Luis Enrique, incensed, was the first to confront him, and got a push in the face for his efforts. Zidane was booked; the Barca captain, already on a yellow card, escaped unpunished.
“Everyone defends their own team and I don’t have a good or bad memory of anything,” was Luis Enrique’s equivocal response when asked for his recollections in January this year.
“I haven’t seen the images and I don’t remember any exchange with Zidane, but for sure we were defending our teams. I respect him as a colleague.”
34 – @FCBarcelona have equaled the longest unbeaten run of La Liga team in all competitions (Real Madrid in 88/89). Unstoppable.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 28, 2016
Zidane had the last laugh when Madrid went on to win the title that year, but Luis Enrique certainly holds the edge in Europe’s biggest club showdown. As a player, after swapping the Bernabeu for Camp Nou, he won half of his 16 Clasicos. Zidane just enjoyed three wins out of 11; in his last in 2005, he suffered the ignominy of watching Ronaldinho applauded off the pitch after the Brazilian left the Galacticos spellbound in the capital.
Former Barca midfielder Jordi Cruyff believes comparing the two as coaches is still far too premature, but, perhaps surprisingly, his personal preference in the head-to-head sees him lean towards the Frenchman.
“Zidane has only been coaching for two or three months at the highest level,” he told Omnisport. “I think it’s a bit too early to give that kind of comparison, but I think it’s always special to be coached by a player you’ve always admired.
“And, in terms of admiration for a player, I would say Zidane is on top. He’s an amazing player, so elegant on the field. It’s unbelievable.”
0 – Barcelona have never won a Clasico while topping the table and leading Real Madrid by at least ten points (2L 1D). Overconfidence
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 21, 2016
Regardless, Zidane will feel the heat on Saturday. His early coaching record betters that of his counterpart – both won nine of their first 12 games in charge, though Zidane suffered just one defeat compared to Luis Enrique’s two and his side have scored nine more goals – but it is undeniably unlucky that his 13th match should come against the league leaders. With Madrid 10 points adrift in the table and facing another year in Barca’s shadow, there is a growing consensus that Zidane’s first Clasico as a coach could be his last.
The man himself offered little assurances this month. “I can’t know what role I’m going to have if I don’t know if I’m going to be here. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season,” was his response to questions on Madrid’s proposed summer recruitment drive aimed at levelling the playing field.
Yet even with the title gone, Madrid have plenty to play for. Victory would be their first at Camp Nou in the league since Cristiano Ronaldo’s winner a 2-1 triumph in April 2012 helped Jose Mourinho wrestle the domestic crown from Pep Guardiola. It would also end Barca’s unbeaten run, which currently stands at 39 matches in all competitions, and help to banish memories of their total surrender to an Andres Iniesta masterclass in the 4-0 hammering in November.
More pertinent, however, is what a win could mean for the future of the coach. Florentino Perez hailed the prospect of appointing a bona fide emblem of Madrid success after he elbowed Rafael Benitez out of the exit door, and only three points will see the president’s faith justified. Confirmation of a huge lift in commitment and morale within the squad, and a warning ahead of a potential Champions League semi-final meeting with Barca, would be welcome bonuses.
Confident, rapacious in attack and determined to win in style – Madrid have embraced some of the qualities which made Zidane the best player of his generation. If they are to stop the Luis Enrique winning machine, they could use a little of his fight, too.