Have Real Madrid Finally Stumbled Across Path to Glory Under Zinedine Zidane?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2016

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24:  Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane attends a press conference during the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It all felt hasty and riddled with risk, but that was nothing new. At the Santiago Bernabeu, the most rapid exercise of one-out-one-in was unfolding, a sense of process absent as those in the room were denied the chance to even ask questions.

That, though, was precisely what the event had given rise to; questions. There were hundreds of them waiting to be voiced, none more simple and direct than this: How on earth was this going to work?

"What we have to do, and what I'm going to try to do is make every possible effort to see this team win something this season," said Zinedine Zidane with a short and sharp statement at his unveiling as Real Madrid manager in January. 

It was an obvious thing to say but a massively complicated one to execute. Zidane, after all, was inheriting a mess, a club beset by dysfunction, politicking and institutional tension. For him, simply staying in the job looked hard enough, and yet here we are less than five months on and Zidane is on the verge of winning something. 

In fact, not just something; the one that means everything

On Saturday in Milan, Zidane's Real Madrid tackle neighbours Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final. It's the second such finale in three seasons following the 2014 showpiece between these same teams, and for Real, this is the stage that defines them. The one they identify with. Win, and it will be their 11th European title, "La Undecima."

Remarkable? That they're even back here, yes. 

Typically a second appearance in a European final in three seasons would suggest dominance, but in this case, it simply disguises to outsiders how staggeringly tumultuous the journey has been from Lisbon to Milan. Between the 2014 final and Zidane's appointment, the club had essentially hammered the self-destruct button for 18 months and for years have done little but get in their own way. 

Somehow, though, here Los Blancos are again. And they look good, too: settled, united, structured, in form. 

A rookie has led them here. 

Have they stumbled across the path to glory?

Real Madrid's French forward Karim Benzema (L) smiles with Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane as they take part in a training session on the club's Open Media Day at Real Madrid sport city in Madrid on May 24, 2016. / AFP / GERARD JULIEN        (P

It's tempting to think so, even if the journey to this point borders on baffling.

On the day Zidane was unveiled back in January, the language used was telling. From president Florentino Perez, there was no talk of experience or previous titles or managerial qualities. Indeed, though there was the typical assertion of the demands at Real, the occasion was nothing like those for Rafa Benitez, Carlo Ancelotti or Jose Mourinho.

Instead, for Zidane, Perez said it all with his first line on the new boss: "There can be no doubt that Zidane is one of the game's all-time great figures."

The president may as well have stopped there. With just 16 words, he'd outlined the sole reason for the Frenchman's appointment, and everyone could see exactly what this was: a Hail Mary. After months and months of taking a sawed-off shotgun to their own foot, Real Madrid desperately needed a symbol, someone the club could hold up and use to inspire belief.

Zidane was that man, but he was also a rookie.

All those questions, then? They were valid.  

If there's one place where a manager needs some knowhow, it's at the Bernabeu. In no other setting in world football does the same treacherous swirl of self-interest exist, and coach after coach has been claimed by it almost regardless of their experience—the thing Zidane had none of, and which even now he admits he has little of. 

At the club's open media day Tuesday, the Real Madrid boss referred to his opposite number Diego Simeone as a manager who's "got it all," while also insisting: "I've still got a lot to learn, but my eagerness to learn couldn't be higher. I'm convinced that willingness will make me a better coach. But I have a long way to go."

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

Zidane isn't the only one who recognises that; his players do, too. But they also feel something for him, they connect with him. He inspires something within them. 

"He has not been back for long and does not have that much coaching experience, but he really boosted the team at an important time," Sergio Ramos told Guillermo Honrubia of UEFA's website this week. "The great player that 'Zizou' was is something he retains as a coach. We try to implement the ideas he had as a player, which he is now adapting as a coach."

Cristiano Ronaldo also pointed to a softer touch, an understanding. "He's clever, he doesn't talk a lot. Those who talk a lot generally don't pay a lot of attention," the Portuguese told Jugones (h/t AS). "He hasn't got a great deal of experience as a coach, but he's doing a good job of finding his way, his own style and I like that."

Who Zidane is and what he represents clearly resonates with Real Madrid's players.

Steadily under his watch, Los Blancos have developed a sense of identity that wasn't there previously. They're more of a collective now. The encompassing idea is stronger. And when the Frenchman has asked for something—effort, intensity, poise, defensive commitment—he's generally got it. 

In his first 20 league games, Zidane saw his side rack up 53 points, which is the best start for a Real Madrid boss in history. The finish to the season was even more impressive: 17 games in all competitions, 15 wins, 12 straight in the league, and triumphs over Barcelona, Villarreal, Sevilla, Valencia and Manchester City among others. 

"The season has been good," Zidane said at a press conference Tuesday, "the work put in has been phenomenal."

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Zinedine Zidane the head coach of Real Madrid looks on during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo
David Ramos/Getty Images

"Phenomenal" might be overselling it, but the specifics of how Zidane has steered Real Madrid to this point are significant and suggest something real might be building here. 

When he was appointed, many anticipated that the club would be transformed into some sort of spectacular show. After all, he was the Galactico returning to manage Galacticos. Instead, however, the Frenchman has proved himself to be more pragmatic than most had believed. 

Unfazed by price tags, politics and perceptions over style, Zidane has done it his way and not someone else's. In that, Casemiro has been prominent. So has Lucas Vazquez. So has Jese. Those forced to periphery include the extravagantly expensive James Rodriguez and Isco, with Zidane prioritising balance and functionality over glamour and flair. 

Because he can. 

Unlike his predecessors in Benitez and Ancelotti, the club icon carries genuine authority. Much of that is due to his status, of course, but the nature of his appointment has helped, too. Indeed, the Hail Mary that Perez opted for when appointing Zidane has strengthened his position. It was the only move Perez had, and the president was also the one who'd eagerly pushed the former Ballon d'Or winner along this path. 

He can't exactly rip it up now. 

That empowers Zidane, then. It gives him the sort the authority Mourinho commanded but without the combustibility.

Thus, what Real Madrid might have—and this is the crucial bit—is a counter-balance to Perez. 

Real Madrid's new French coach Zinedine Zidane (L) poses with Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez after a statement at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on January 4, 2016. Rafael Benitez's unhappy reign in charge of Real Madrid came to an end

In the absence of a sporting director, the president's impulsiveness has stood at the heart of Real Madrid's underachievement during his reign: The Galactico obsession has continued; managers have come and gone with alarming frequency; continuity and stability have been scarce on almost every level.

Some of that will inevitably continue, but Zidane has shown he owns the force of character to challenge and temper it. Through his team selections he's demonstrated that, while in press conferences he has at times even confronted the club's issues and the manner of the club's operation. 

It hasn't gone unnoticed, and if he can help Real Madrid get out of their own way, the club's potential is immense. 

Indeed, it's the little details that have held Madrid back, but away from the Galacticos and the managerial revolving door, there's quietly been a sense of something building in Chamartin. 

Last August, when the club signed Mateo Kovacic from Inter Milan, we noted here at Bleacher Report that his purchase was the continuation of a trend. The Croatian, after all, was 21 at the time and became the latest player to arrive at the Bernabeu between the ages of 16 and 24 in the space of two years. 

The others: Gareth Bale, Isco, James, Vazquez, Asier Illarramendi, Daniel Carvajal, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Lucas Silva, Martin Odegaard, Danilo, Marco Asensio and Jesus Vallejo. Then there's Raphael Varane in the same age group, as well as the academy products in Jese and Borja Mayoral.  

Not all of those men are still in place, of course, and more could depart this summer. But as a group, they're evidence that Real Madrid are constructing something. A foundation. A model. A core with genuine depth to be moulded. 

Is Zidane the man for that? Maybe.

Until now, the absence of a stable figure with authority had left a feeling that much of that foundation-setting would be wasted and ripped up year after year. But now things look different. Zidane has settled the squad. On the pitch, there's an identifiable structure; off it, there's a certain harmony now evident. And the significant upheaval that once loomed for the coming summer now appears far less likely. 

So here we are, then. Zidane has power. He has popularity. He has colossal resources at his disposal. And already in place for him is a squad loaded with top-end talent and a youthful core. 

Real Madrid might have just stumbled across a path to glory, if only they can stay on it.