Only Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley have lifted the European Cup as a manager as many times (three) as Zinedine Zidane. The sight of the Frenchman in such illustrious company is an anomaly to some who question just how tactically adept the Real Madrid boss is, but factually it cannot be argued that he knows how to guide a team to Champions League glory.
Even when Real Madrid have found themselves in a downward spiral, with Zidane’s job seemingly on the line, continental competition is where the 48-year-old has found salvation. Take the 2017/18 Champions League campaign, for instance, which pitted a Real Madrid side struggling for consistency against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16. Defeat would have almost certainly seen Zidane sacked. Instead, Real Madrid won the tie and the whole competition.
Zidane’s job might not be quite so acutely at risk right now, but the Frenchman has come under scrutiny as Real Madrid, currently three points off the top of La Liga, have once more struggled for form. If the Spanish giants are to save their season, they will have to do it in the Champions League again.
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Wednesday night’s away win over Atalanta suggests Real Madrid could feasibly be crowned European champions for a record 14th time through muscle memory. They know how to win the Champions League better than any other club and there’s just something about continental competition that Real Madrid know how to navigate.
The truth is, though, Real Madrid don’t know how to win the Champions League without Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, in the two seasons since the Portuguese forward departed the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid have failed to make it past the competition’s round of 16, exiting to Ajax and Manchester City.
Karim Benzema has upped his goalscoring levels to compensate for the attacking productivity that left Real Madrid with Ronaldo, but the French striker, 33, is now unable to play every single match of every single season. Zidane has changed the focus of his team from Ronaldo to Benzema, but without the latter as an attacking apex Real Madrid lack purpose.
This was evident in the performance produced against Atalanta. While Real Madrid ultimately got the job done, claiming a 1-0 away leg victory that should set them on course to make the quarter-finals, they had to wait for a long-range strike from a full back to make the breakthrough against an opposition side reduced to 10 men after just 17 minutes.
Zidane was so short of deputies for Benzema he fielded Isco in a ‘false nine’ position - the same Isco who has rarely featured for Real Madrid this season. The same Isco whose fitness and weight has been the subject of much discussion in the Spanish press. Indeed, this was only the 28-year-old’s fourth start of the season so far.
When this ploy didn’t work, Isco was hooked for Hugo Duro, a player who scored just once in 32 games for Getafe before securing a loan move to Real Madrid’s B team, Castilla. This was reflective of how desperately Real Madrid are lacking a Plan B for when Benzema is injured or in need of a rest.
It should be noted that Zidane was also missing Eden Hazard and Rodrygo from his matchday squad, both of whom would have given Real Madrid greater threat in the final third of the pitch in Bergamo. Neither, however, would have been a natural deputy for Benzema. No team at the elite level of the game is as dependent on one player as Real Madrid are on their French frontman. They might need more than just muscle memory to find Champions League salvation again.
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