More than once, the Champions League has offered Zinedine Zidane salvation just as looked set to bring him condemnation. Defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach might well have marked the end for the Frenchman as Real Madrid manager. The Spanish giants had never previously failed to get out of a Champions League group. The breaking of that duck likely wouldn’t have been tolerated.
When it mattered most, though, with Zidane’s job potentially on the line, Real Madrid produced their best performance of the season so far, clinching a 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach that could have been even more convincing had the woodwork not come to the Germans’ aid on three occasions. Los Blancos’ dominance warranted a heavier scoreline.
After all the strife Real Madrid have suffered in the Champions League this season, after the home and away defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk, Zidane’s side took top spot in Group B. Many pondered before kick off how jarring the sight of the 13-times European champions in the Europa League. By full time, they had a last 16 place as a seeded team under their belt.
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This certainly wasn’t the first time Zidane has pulled himself back from the brink. In fact, the Frenchman is a master of the managerial great escape. Real Madrid’s patchy La Liga form means Zidane still has questions to answer, but the win over Gladbach will almost certainly give him until the new year to fully turn things around. The Real Madrid job won’t be Mauricio Pochettino’s until 2021 at least.
Real Madrid’s big names turned up against the visitors to the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano. Karim Benzema scored both goals and had opportunities to score more. Luka Modric was a force of nature through the middle of the pitch while Sergio Ramos showed why he is still the club’s predominant leader. There was no getting past the veteran.
It was a performance reminiscent of the one produced against Paris Saint-Germain back in February 2018. A poor run of form put Zidane under intense pressure with the last 16 tie against the French champions billed as his last chance to reverse course. A convincing 3-1 home victory came out of the blue and Real Madrid went on to retain their Champions League crown for the third successive season.
While Real Madrid played exceptionally well against Gladbach, there’s still a long way to go until they can realistically target Champions League glory. Zidane’s side still have the individual quality to pull it out of the bag from time to time, but their ageing core makes it difficult to achieve any degree of consistency.
Nonetheless, Zidane’s powers of recovery should be noted. Last week’s shock defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Madrid’s second of the group stage campaign, made this week make or break for the 48-year-old. First came a tricky away game against Sevilla, which Real Madrid won. Then came Wednesday’s Champions League decided against Gladbach, which Real Madrid also won. Next up is Saturday’s Madrid derby against table-topping Atletico Madrid.
For all that he has achieved in management, there remains widespread scepticism of Zidane. He isn’t a tactician in the mould of Pep Guardiola. He doesn’t charm like Jurgen Klopp. He doesn’t have a clear and distinct style of play or footballing ideology. This marks him down in age when football managers are expected to be philosophers as well as leaders.
But Zidane does have a spiritual grip on Real Madrid that tightens hardest just as it appears to be loosening. The performance and result against Borussia Monchengladbach revealed the heights this group of players can still reach. Zidane has turned Real Madrid before and what unfolded on Wednesday hinted he could do it again.