For a moment, Zinedine Zidane allowed himself a rare smile – a fleeting one, but a smile nonetheless. Karim Benzema had just scored and Real Madrid were 2-0 up against Málaga, well on their way to their 33rd La Liga title. Then Zidane regained his composure, and started directing from the touchline again. 38 minutes later, he had his reward.
The significance of this achievement cannot be emphasised enough. It had been five years since Real last won the league, back when José Mourinho was still in charge and he and Iker Casillas hadn’t fallen out yet. Since then, they had watched Barcelona lift the trophy three times, and Atlético once.
Some, including me, had doubted Zidane’s abilities as a manager. When he won the Champions League four months after being appointed, it was seen as a stroke of luck. He simply happened to inherit an extremely talented side who faced little opposition in the latter rounds of the competition.
But while it may be possible to get lucky in a knockout tournament like the Champions League, the same cannot be said for La Liga. When all 20 teams have played 38 games, the team which comes out on top deserves it the most.
True, Madrid were not at their best all season. There were games where they were lacklustre and others where Zidane’s tactics were questioned, such as in the last-minute defeat to Barca in April.
And yet, they almost always found a way to win. Not just that, but they knew they would win. They fell foul of that overwhelming confidence in the final few minutes of the Clásico, but the five games they won from losing positions are testament to Zidane’s effect when it comes to the team’s character.
The squad the Frenchman has at his disposition is ludicrously good, but so was that of many former Real Madrid managers. Few have used every player to their full effect in the same way as Zidane.
This squad management proved the difference at the top of La Liga. Of Zidane’s first-team squad, 20 players had more than 1,000 minutes on the pitch compared to 18 from Barca. Real had 19 different scorers in the league, while Barca had 15.
Zidane played an ‘A’ team in the big matches and gave the so-called ‘B’ team a chance in less high priority games, ensuring unity. The strength of Madrid’s squad meant it was often hard to tell the difference between the two and it wasn’t always perfect – Álvaro Morata might feel he should have started more games given he finished as the team’s second top-scorer in La Liga besides Cristiano Ronaldo – but on the whole it worked.
Even more impressive was Zidane’s management of Ronaldo. Back in September, the coach took the forward off 72 minutes into Real’s game against Las Palmas, who sulked off the field. The substitution backfired that night with the match ending 2-2, but Zidane had done something which none of Ronaldo’s previous managers at Madrid had dared to do – he had stood up to the Portuguese star.
Zidane continued to substitute Ronaldo and rest him for less important away trips, and the policy has paid off. His 25 goals in La Liga may have been well short of his career-best 48 in 2014-15, but for the first time in several years Ronaldo has been at his sharpest in the decisive stages of the season. He opened the scoring at La Rosaleda on Sunday, and he could play just as crucial a role against Juventus in Cardiff.
There are few managers who could have had the same effect on Ronaldo. Real Madrid managers tend to get swallowed up by the job and the pressure which comes with it. It is one which can drive even the best coaches mad, and which requires a specific set of skills.
But Zidane is used to the atmosphere which surrounds this behemoth of a club. He has experienced it as a player. He knows what it is like to be booed by the spoilt Bernabéu faithful. He knows that harmony is key to success with such a gifted set of players. And, crucially, he knows that sometimes the squad comes before the manager at Madrid.
Would he have the same effect at another club? Possibly not. But Zidane is the perfect fit for Real Madrid. Now, he stands on the verge of winning a second Champions League title in the space of two years. Zizou has cracked the code.