He was doomed. Zinedine Zidane had blown his solitary chance of silverware – a 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg sparking terminal talk about his future, even after the Clasico triumph. One thing seemed clear: the Frenchman was no better than Rafa Benitez. In fact, he was probably worse.
Then Barcelona lost again, succumbing 1-0 to Real Sociedad. Suddenly, an insurmountable 10-point deficit was down to four and the Catalan giants had emerged as the inadvertent catalyst for Real to save their season. Not only was the domestic title available, but belief started to flow about a European turnaround.
Wolfsburg arrived in the Spanish capital on Tuesday evening expecting to seal a famous aggregate win. Instead, they were ripped apart and ruthlessly ousted by Cristiano Ronaldo and co. This was a Real Madrid that had long been absent, one carrying the ball at speed and bombarding the opposition goal.
Zidane, reportedly reluctant to take over in mid-season, is now three games away from leading Real to an 11th Champions League crown – aka the far less-heralded Undecima. His managerial acumen may still be open for debate, but he has a rejuvenated squad quite capable of lifting the trophy again.
REAL MADRID… A TEAM AGAIN
Ronaldo, Benzema, Pepe (Real Madrid v Wolfbsurg)
Image credit: AFP
Gone was the frustration. Two early goals turned a potentially fractious fan base into an intimidating weapon as they blitzed their German rivals.
Ronaldo will adorn the back pages of the global press on Wednesday morning, but without unsung heroes Dani Carvajal and Luka Modric, Real may be contemplating 2016-17 already. It was the former’s involvement that started the dramatic comeback, stealing possession before finding his Portuguese colleague with a fine (albeit deflected) cross. Meanwhile, Croatian Modric oozed confidence in the middle, allowing Real to pour forward in waves.
Sure, it was only Wolfsburg – a side superior to their eighth spot in the Bundesliga, but hardly a European giant. But to win by three goals under that make-or-break pressure? Mighty impressive.
Disjointed and open in some recent outings, Real looked a cohesive unit. It could have been four, five, six, had Diego Benaglio not produced heroics in the Wolfsburg goal. Even Sergio Ramos and Pepe managed to subdue their usual rashness.
SLATE RONALDO ALL YOU WANT… HE IS A PHENOMENAL GOALSCORER
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their third goal and his hat-trick
Image credit: Reuters
‘He doesn’t pass.’ ‘He’s selfish.’ ‘He doesn’t care for the team.’
As Ronaldo spun in the centre, gesticulating wildly to gee up the fans as Real closed on a slender win, that one-man image was partially dispelled. Of course he cares. Why do personal and team success have to be mutually exclusive when it comes to the Portuguese forward?
This was Real and Ronaldo at their best. There were the usual howls of frustration when he wasn’t picked out – while he relied on an extremely ropey Wolfsburg wall for his free-kick winner – but, ultimately, his goals hauled Real into the semi-finals. It was leadership, not solely single-mindedness.
With Ronaldo in this rich vein of form, it is quite plausible that he can have the decisive say in this season’s Champions League – rather than simply whacking home a meaningless penalty and wildly celebrating, a la Atletico in 2014.
WHAT DOES ZIDANE NEED TO DO TO STAY?
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their third goal and his hat-trick with Marcelo and Gareth Bale
Image credit: Reuters
Simple: win a trophy.
He may have a reputation as one of European football’s greats, but Zidane’s sudden promotion into the Bernabeu hot-seat has looked hasty. Even Tuesday’s encounter suggested little about Zidane the coach. The defensive deficiencies that blighted the last 16 tie with Roma, and the first leg in Germany, may not have been evident, but it's hard to get too excited given Real's topsy-turvy form. The errors and openness must be eliminated if Real are to succeed Barcelona on the continental throne.
Zidane's job may have been spared by Ronaldo’s goals in their two recent must-win encounters, but if he can instil the same belief in the supporting cast – Carvajal, Modric et al – there is every case to let him stay. Even Florentino Perez must surely see it: you don’t build a consistent, winning team if you chop your manager every few months. The Frenchman's sudden promotion was a gamble, but the positive signs from Clasico and Wolfsburg triumphs should be enough for him to oversee Real until Christmas, at the very least.
And Real partly have their Spanish rivals Barca to thank for their rejuvenation. The Catalan giants’ wobble may not be terminal – they should still win La Liga at a canter, given the kind fixture list – but it seems to have helped focus Real Madrid again. La Undecima in 2016? Don’t rule it out.