Zinedine Zidane was defiant. He had to be; there was no other choice.
Zidane is a fierce competitor—his artistry as a player often overshadowed his drive, his intensity—but even he will know the fight he spoke of on Sunday is an empty one. Barcelona's lead is nine points with just 13 games remaining. No team in league history has ever overcome that equation, the task made harder this time because of who sits on its favourable side.
On Saturday, with victory over Las Palmas, Barcelona won their eighth straight game in the league and extended their unbeaten run to 32 matches in all competitions. On Tuesday, they took it to 33 with victory over Arsenal in the Champions League.
This Barcelona outfit defies superlatives. For Madrid to win this season's title, the Catalans, with their colossal head-to-head advantage, would need to lose at least four of their remaining 13 games—one more than the number they've lost across 45 in all competitions so far this season.
Though officially, mathematically, the title race is still alive, emotionally it probably isn't.
"Mission impossible," said Marca.
"Kiss the title goodbye," said AS.
For Zidane, however, here is where the real work starts.
On the day the Frenchman was appointed back in January, a neat photo was taken during the press conference. In his blue jacket, Zidane was pictured with the Real Madrid logo behind him, his head covering the circular component of it and leaving only the royal crown in sight. It was as if the crown was sitting on his head.
"The new king of Madrid?" asked AS.
Well, not quite.
Though there has been an element of royal passage in Zidane's ascent to his current position, Real Madrid isn't yet his. In a strictly ownership sense it never will be, of course, but Zidane carries power that hasn't been exercised.
Upon replacing Rafa Benitez, the current manager made all the right noises, which at Real Madrid is essentially saying what you must say: He spoke of attacking football, of a new era and of his commitment to Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Benitez had often said similar things, but his successor's words were weightier—much more so.
And then there was the key line: "I have to do this the Zidane way," he told the media.
But what is the Zidane way? To date, it looks very much like the Carlo Ancelotti way, the Frenchman's method thus far founded on player empowerment, empathy, economy in words and instruction, prioritising the stars and settling on a very defined XI.
As a place to start, it's been a good one. Madrid under Zidane have looked happier, calmer and more fluent. Most would argue a little better, too, the key being familiarity.
But from here, something else, something more, is needed; with this squad and against this Barcelona, the Ancelotti method wasn't and isn't enough. Though Madrid's issues go well beyond the first-team coach and all the way to the president, Zidane can be a driver of change. He can challenge a status quo that's not working.
He can lead.
AS English @English_AS
Zidane: The new 'king' of Madrid ? https://t.co/0IIygPzujZ1/5/2016, 8:22:51 AM
Many will argue that it won't be easily done. At Real Madrid, manager after manager has been undermined by Florentino Perez, their authority too often minimal, their task too often impossible. Typically, there are two options: do it the flawed Perez way and get fired, or do it differently and get fired.
But Zidane's case is slightly different.
Compared to many who've gone before him, the new boss is in a far stronger position politically. His iconic status helps here, yes, but it goes beyond that. Having fired two coaches in less than a year, Perez will know another quick sacking will reflect poorly on him. He's also the one who's pushed Zidane along this path, wanting a legend to manage a collection of stars. To see that unfold, the president has to persist with it, backing himself into a corner.
That strengthens Zidane's position and weakens that of Perez, giving the club icon greater power and potential influence than his predecessors.
Now Zidane needs to use it. He needs to shape this team to his liking and no one else's. He needs to give it clarity, identity and purpose. He needs to give it balance.
He needs to make Real Madrid his.
As a man new to management, doing so will take time. His essence as a boss is still being moulded; as a coach, he's still figuring out who he is. But establishing that is now the key for both manager and club. Evolving away from the Ancelotti template is necessary for Zidane to give this team his own stamp, to reconstruct it in his image.
That could mean changes at a tactical level. It could mean changes at a personnel level. It could mean changing in tone, language and emphasis, using his position of power to challenge his club to address its own shortcomings rather than toeing the company line.
It could be anything. But it must be something.
This league title is probably gone, just like too many before it. What Zidane has now are 13 matches and almost three months to start changing Madrid. To start building something for next season. To start making Real Madrid his.
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