And so Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, has rolled the dice again. For the third time this season—after the Julen Lopetegui debacle and the short-lived reign of Santiago Solari, a man who has overseen possibly the worst week in the club's history—Perez has appointed a new manager. This one, nobody saw coming. Maybe in the summer, but not now. Under 10 months after he sensationally resigned, Zinedine Zidane is back as Real Madrid's head coach.
"This has been a surprise because nobody was expecting that Zidane will take the team now," says Manuel Bruna, a journalist who covers the daily Real Madrid beat for Mundo Deportivo. "He's walking into a big mess. I don't know if it's going to solve the club's problems, but it's definitely the best solution that Real Madrid could find now. Real Madrid is a club that needs someone to return some ilusion—some hope, some dreams—to its fans, its players. Zidane, who is a mythical figure, is the man who can sprinkle that magic. Jose Mourinho, the other standout candidate, was not that man."
Perhaps it's the triumph of hope over experience. Zidane—who has signed a contract until 2022—faces a daunting task. He originally left the job because he saw a rot had set in. The squad, which had won him three UEFA Champions League titles on the trot, needed renovation. Zidane's plans for that overhaul differed to the ideas Perez had in mind. The position of Gareth Bale was a sticking point. Perez went over the head of Zidane to guarantee the future of Bale at the club. Zidane wanted to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who averaged 50 goals per season. Ronaldo went.
"Whether Zidane will have the wherewithal to rebuild Real Madrid next season and make the team play in a manner that is commensurate with the enormity of the club name, we shall see," says John Carlin, author of a fly-on-the-wall book on Real Madrid White Angels. "But he's probably the best bet right now to achieve the immediate goal to ensure there isn't a complete implosion in the remaining games of the season and the nightmare is avoided of failing to achieve qualification for the Champions League.
"But the thing is this: Zidane's period as manager at Real Madrid was sensational in terms of what happened in the Champions League, but it wasn't sensational in terms of consistency or the quality of the football played. No one remembers this Real Madrid of Zidane as one of the great teams we loved to watch. Not like Guardiola's Barca. Or the Milan of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten. Or Cruyff's great Ajax team.
"They are remembered as a team who were there for the very big occasions, and above all was able to call on Cristiano Ronaldo at critical moments to turn the luck its way. And there was quite a lot of luck along the way. This time will be a different order of test for Zidane—to create a team that is admired and loved without Ronaldo. Obviously a lot will depend on who the club signs in the summer. I imagine he will have got guarantees from Florentino about the amount of money he is going to shell out."
Perez joked giddily in yesterday's press conference announcing Zidane's return about the possible players who might come in. "He [Zidane], who is French, and who gets on well with [Kylian] Mbappe, could do something, no [to convince him]?" On the choice between Mbappe or Neymar? "I'd choose both," said Perez. Bruna reckons Eden Hazard—who is a favourite of Zidane—is a sure target.
It remains to be seen whether any of them can be prized from their clubs. Perez—who has Real on the hook for a controversial €575 million stadium refurbishment project—will also be operating in an inflated transfer market. Proven goal scorers like Harry Kane (expensive) or Robert Lewandowski (old) come with caveats. Zidane will provide pulling power, however, for Real Madrid's transfer dealings.
"The important thing for Zidane's [prospects] will be what happens in the transfer market in the summer," says Carlin. "I would imagine Zidane must want Mbappe as the big signing. That's the one that would light up the Bernabeu. It would get the fans excited, as it would Florentino, and he could possibly play a role similar to Cristiano Ronaldo. It would be a mistake to go for Neymar.
"No doubt the presence of Zidane boosts the capacity of a club to hire top players. It's not only the money. It counts, but in the case, for example, of Frenkie de Jong, he chose to go to Barca because he wanted to play with Messi. There are other draws than merely the money."
There are several Real Madrid players in the firing line. During Real Madrid's tumultuous season, Bale, Isco and Marcelo have been out in the cold. There are question marks about their futures, as there is about that of club captain, Sergio Ramos. After last week's elimination to Ajax in the UEFA Champions League, Ramos had a row in the dressing room with Perez.
The president scolded the players for their lack of dedication. Ramos—echoing a complaint made by Luka Modric the day before the second leg against Ajax—put the blame on Perez for failing to strengthen the squad after Ronaldo's departure. The team has been lacking firepower. Perez threatened to throw Ramos out of the club. Ramos dug in: "Perfect, you pay me—and I go." Zidane will find himself in the middle of this quarrel, and it's one of many challenges he will face.
Zidane's worst moment in his first stint as Real Madrid manager was his side's exit to Leganes in last season's Copa del Rey quarterfinal, following a 2-1 defeat at the Bernabeu. Afterwards, Zidane turned his back on the club's scattergun policy of bringing through young talents, which stretched back over the previous five seasons, and put his faith in the club's senior players. Will he have the stomach to turn his back on those veterans now?
"Is Zidane supposed to calm the mood in the club, or is he here to carry out a revolution? This revolution people talk about, which consists in Real Madrid getting rid of five or six players to change the negative dynamic in the dressing room, doesn't look like it will be done by Zidane," says Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer. "If there was something Zidane showed us, it is that he is very loyal to the players that made him a champion, so I don't really see Zidane tossing out the likes of Isco, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos.
"With Zidane's return, Bale won't continue at the club. My doubt is what is going to happen to some of the others. I don't think Zidane will let Marcelo, who was an essential player for him, go, or Sergio Ramos, but we know that Florentino doesn't want Sergio Ramos to have all the power he has in the changing room. Let's see what happens—if Real Madrid fires Sergio Ramos—but I'll be surprised if Zidane has come to cut heads off. I don't think that is the reason he's here.
"Karim Benzema is another problem. He's a Zidane player. Zidane likes him. They're from the same country, but I think Benzema is more part of the problem than the solution. It's true he is scoring goals, but he doesn't guarantee the number of goals Cristiano used to score, and I have doubts about Real Madrid playing with a centre-forward plus Benzema. Benzema staying could condition the rest of the team's line-up."
Luring Zidane back to the club has been a master political stroke by Perez. It has quietened the baying mob at the gates of the castle, those fans who were chanting for his resignation at the end of the 4-1 defeat to Ajax in early March. Zidane has put his trust in a man who is notoriously trigger-happy. Perez once fired six coaches in a three-year spell. When asked why he sacked Carlo Ancelotti, the man who started Real Madrid's current cycle of European Cup triumphs, he was dumbstruck. "I don't know," was the response.
"We shouldn't forget that Zidane's head was on the block from the beginning when he first got the job," says Trueba. "If he didn't win that first European Cup final in Milan against Atletico Madrid in 2016, he would have been fired immediately after the final. Then after a year in which his team won everything in 2017, he was again criticised because his team fell out of the league title race so early last season.
"Will the club allow him to do his work next season? I think to convince Zidane, they told him he has all the power now in a sporting sense, but power is relative with Florentino Perez. He is the only one with real power. Florentino is very bossy. It might look like he gives power to his trainers, but that's not the reality. Let's see how they manage it."
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