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Clasico Debuts Have Scarred Real Madrid Managers: Can Zidane Reverse the Trend?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2016

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane sits during a press conference on March 7, 2016 at Real Madrid Sport City in Madrid on the eve of their UEFA Champions League football match Real Madrid CF vs AS Roma  / AFP / JAVIER SORIANO        (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)
JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

It had been almost two years since they'd lost at home and almost three since they hadn't scored there, but on this day, they would do both. 

It was two days before Christmas in 2007, and Barcelona were hosting Real Madrid for the season's first Clasico. Arriving, the visitors were defending champions and league-leaders, but by their standards, they were also the modest sort rather than the spectacular. And this was Barcelona. The Camp Nou. The site where Madrid had won only a single league game in a decade. 

Madrid were in for a scrap. 

Or so everyone thought. 

For both teams, this was a crunch affair, but only one team played like it was. Barcelona were flat and aimless. Deco was ineffectual. Samuel Eto'o was the same. Marquee signing Thierry Henry sat on the bench. Lionel Messi was absent. Ronaldinho may as well have been. 

In contrast, Madrid were organised, purposeful and full of clarity. At the back, there was a newfound solidity; in attack, they were lethal on the break; with a screamer, Julio Baptista settled it. 

"Nightmare before Christmas" shouted Mundo Deportivo in Barcelona. Back in the capital, Marca and AS celebrated a "white Christmas," the only frustration being that they hadn't won by more. "We should have finished them off sooner," said Real Madrid manager Bernd Schuster. "I would not call it easy but it was certainly easier than I expected."

Real Madrid's football players celebrate their victory on Barcelona at the end of their Spanish league football match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, 23 December, 2007.  Real Madrid won 1-0. AFP PHOTO/JAVIER SORIANO (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORI
JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

This had been Schuster's maiden Clasico as a coach, and if he'd been struck by how straightforward an introduction it had been at the time, events since will have reinforced it.

Massively. 

Almost a decade has passed since that evening, and not one Real Madrid boss has replicated Schuster's feat in winning the Clasico at the first attempt. In that time, five other managers have been and gone, and on each occasion, the debut-Clasico story has followed the same curve: hope, expectation, excitement, possibilities, realities, frustration, despair. In some cases, humiliation, too.

For Juande Ramos in 2008, his Clasico initiation was a 2-0 defeat; for Manuel Pellegrini the following year, it was 1-0; for Jose Mourinho after him, it was 5-0; for Carlo Ancelotti three seasons later, it was 2-1; for Rafa Benitez last November, it was 4-0. 

Now it's the turn of Zinedine Zidane. Or No. 6. "Zidane looks to end Clasico curse," said Marca this week.

Can he end it? Can he reverse the trend? Can he give his club's credentials in Europe a shot in the arm? Can he do what most think he won't? Can he, on first attempt, topple this Barcelona?

They're interesting questions, undoubtedly, but they're perhaps not the most important. Instead, it's the next rather than the now that feels monumental: What will come after Zidane's first Clasico? What effect will it have? How long will that effect last?

Will a single game irrevocably shape the rest of his reign?

Maybe. 

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MARCH 02:  Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to the La Liga match between Levante UD and Real Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on March 02, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

For Zidane's post-Schuster predecessors, what's striking when you reflect on their respective Clasico debuts is how those games in retrospect can be considered instigators of subsequent unrest, how they changed careers and the men they belonged to or how they became emblematic of tenures that unfolded in their wake. 

None were bigger than Mourinho's.  

In the buildup to the game in late 2010 that changed everything, Mourinho had spoken of his affection for outings of such significance—"there are games, whether because of difficulty or dimension or consequences, that I like more than others," he'd said—but he had also rejected the notion that it would be decisive. 

"I like games that are decisive," the Portuguese had added. "We might play Barcelona in the [UEFA] Champions League, but in La Liga it's a different way of understanding. After this game, no one will go home with the frustration of having lost the chance to win a big competition."

Twenty-four hours later, Mourinho hadn't lost that chance, but he had lost. Catastrophically. 5-0. As such, what he left with was a frustration that would change his personal course, altering the dynamic of the Clasico for three years. 

Quickly, the rivalry became nastier and more controversial than ever. On a war path, Mourinho started fires everywhere he could, attacking Barcelona via every avenue: referees, conspiracies, relentless barbs, physical confrontation and through contentious, negative tactics in the clashes that followed. He'd arrived with a reputation for exactly that, yes, as a known provocateur, but the 5-0 heightened his belief in such methods, reinforcing to him what he deemed as necessary. 

Many at Madrid embraced it; just as many didn't.

Senior players were critical of the verbal methods—"we have to stop talking about referees because it helps no one," said Sergio Ramos, per Pete Jenson of the Independent—and didn't see eye-to-eye tactically. The physicality, the stonewall defending, Pepe in midfield: "It wasn't Madrid" was essentially the discourse, and it wasn't what Mourinho had said ahead of his Clasico debut, either. 

"I hope we have the mentality where, even if we are losing, we still have the confidence to win, to keep our feet on the floor and continue to play," he'd said then. "I am totally tranquilo."

Real Madrid's Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho gestures during a press conference on November 30, 2012 in Madrid on the eve of the Spanish League football match against Atletico Madrid. Atletico Madrid take on derby rivals Real Madrid this weekend aiming to
CESAR MANSO/Getty Images

Divides opened, then, filling themselves with mistrust and loathing. Internal feuds grew in number. As well as waging war externally, Mourinho waged it internally, the whole thing blowing up spectacularly in 2012-13.

The whole thing able to be traced back to Mourinho's Clasico debut.

To the 5-0. 

"5-0?" you can picture Benitez mumbling to himself in a quiet moment. "Mine wasn't that bad."

For scoreline it wasn't, but for political significance it was close. 

When Benitez's Madrid met Barcelona in November for the Madrileno's maiden Clasico, it marked the day Zidane's most recent predecessor abandoned his own principles. Admittedly, there were consequences waiting if he didn't, but there were consequences because he did, too. 

Bowing to pressure, to politics, Benitez gave them what they wanted. Them? The fans. Media. Players. President. They wanted him to attack with no thought for risk. So against logic, against instincts, he did. He picked a half-fit Karim Benzema. He picked the marginalised-until-that-point James Rodriguez. He picked the expensive-but-flawed Danilo. He left out Casemiro. 

He sent out a side with no structure, no cover and no plan other than to go for it. 

And they got hammered. 

For Benitez, the only surprise was that he lasted more than a month after it. The fault was hardly his alone, but this was the day he lost any sense of power, control. With the Santiago Bernabeu's scoreboard reading 0-4 after he'd bowed to them, he'd become an authoritarian with no authority; a manager who wasn't really; a disciplinarian with destructible rules. 

It was symbolic of the political mess that was his entire stint. And in symbolism gripping his Clasico debut, he wasn't alone. 

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

Before Benitez, Ancelotti's first dip into the world's biggest fixture became emblematic of his side's domestic underachievement thereafter despite a favourable landscape. In October 2013, the Italian, amid a somewhat defused period in the rivalry, took Madrid to Catalonia to face the least dynamic Barcelona outfit any Madrid manager had seen since Schuster. 

But it didn't matter.

Madrid lost anyway and departed the Camp Nou looking confused. Natural defender Sergio Ramos had played in central midfield; Sami Khedira looked an awkward fit; Gareth Bale had started as a false nine. 

This was Ancelotti's lot in the league. In his two seasons, Madrid botched one campaign when Barcelona looked jaded and threw away an advantage in the other. His team also couldn't handle its direct rivals: In four league Clasicos, Ancelotti won one; in four Madrid derbies, he won none; in four league clashes with the sides that finished fourth in his two years, he won one. Two from 12. 

His Clasico debut grew symbolic. It set a tone.

Just as Pellegrini's had done for him; as Juande Ramos', in a sense, had done as well. 

Pellegrini, after all, was the man who led Madrid to their highest points tally in history to that point but still fell short. His maiden Clasico, when Madrid were excellent but lost anyway, summed it up.

Juande Ramos, meanwhile, was the man whose Clasico debut brought a false dawn.

Amid chaos, the Spaniard had replaced Schuster prior to a trip to the Camp Nou. Madrid were expected to be bulldozed, but they weren't. They scrapped. They fought. Barcelona eventually won but were forced to toil. For Madrid, they said it was a turning point. When Juande Ramos' side won 17 of their next 18 league games, that feeling was reinforced. 

Then Barcelona arrived at the Bernabeu. Trashing Madrid 6-2, they effectively clinched the title with the most emphatic of statements, Messi playing a new role that would change football across Europe and send Madrid into their leanest years domestically for more than half a century. 

Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

This is what Clasico debuts have done for Madrid managers. 

Now it's Zidane turn, and familiar questions linger: How will it unfold? What will follow it? Will this propel him definitively toward failure or triumph?

It's hard to know, but what is undeniable is the sense of intrigue. 

Whereas for most Real Madrid managers Clasicos often loom as potentially defining or job-destroying, Zidane's position is a little different. Still only three months into his reign at the Bernabeu, the club icon is surrounded by a sense of time being available to him.

Parachuted in midway through the season, he hasn't yet had the opportunity to construct the team, shape it to his designs and make it his. Many of his predecessors would rightly argue they were never afforded that chance either, but Zidane's gravitas helps in this respect, and in other ways as well. 

Appointed amid a backdrop of a Clasico mauling, the Cadiz debacle, player unrest, comical press conferences and a catalogue of other incidents that led Marca to label it "a ludicrous five months," Zidane is something of a Hail Mary from president Florentino Perez. In the face of calls for his resignation at the Bernabeu, Perez has used the aura of the man he signed as a player back in 2001 in an act of self-defence, it being the only card he had left to play. 

It's significant. For Zidane, such a sequence has strengthened his position, awarding him the sort of authority many others never enjoyed and alleviating pressure to an extent.

That aura is also helpful for public perception, for popularity. 

Though quantifiable gains haven't been forthcoming, Madrid have been better received under Zidane and have looked better in an emotional sense. Freer, happier, "looser" as Espanyol manager Constantin Galca put it, Madrid have emitted sensations that have made you feel they're headed the right way even if you can't be sure. 

Thus, despite the complexion of the league table, Zidane is approaching Saturday's clash surrounded by an intriguing mood. One of a quiet confidence. One of an expectation that is admittedly restrained but is expectation nonetheless. 

And yet, we've been here before. This is all part of the familiar curve. 

Clasico debuts have irrevocably scarred Zidane's predecessors. 

He's out to reverse the trend.