F365 Says: Zidane gives ordinary Real Madrid a chance

Date published: Wednesday 25th April 2018 9:22

“Oh my word” gasped Steve McManaman, mouth presumably agape as Rafinha inexplicably laid the ball into the path of Marco Asensio. Within a matter of seconds, the substitute had traded passes with Lucas Vazquez, evaded the attentions of Joshua Kimmich and placed a shot into the far corner. The comeback was complete.

In a game where neither side seemed to have control of the wheel for longer than five minutes, it was a goal fittingly akin to a car crash: the mistake, the split-second realisation, the inability to direct your gaze anywhere else as the drama unfolded. Bayern had led this race, but the wheels had come off after one wrong turn.

After 90 minutes of structured chaos at Anfield 24 hours prior, this felt like an underwhelming Champions League semi-final. Both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid looked simultaneously dangerous and vulnerable, error-strewn and menacing. There was an incoherence to each attack, an ominous disjointedness to either defence. On this basis, there is nothing for Liverpool – or Roma – to fear in Kiev.

The sense of mortality extended to even the most infallible figures. Robert Lewandowski was wasteful, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller were worse, while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos failed to stamp their authority on a match that was begging for leadership, for direction. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first shot of the game came in the second half, and missed the corner flag by about five yards before rolling out for a throw-in. His frustration was palpable.

Yet Real Madrid, as Real Madrid so often do in this competition, found a way. As Juventus discovered earlier this month, as Atletico Madrid realised in the finals of 2014 and 2016, as Bayern themselves found out at the quarter-final stage last year, few land a knockout punch better than Los Blancos. The second you take your eyes off them, they rise from the canvas and pick their spot.

It can no longer be considered a coincidence, a historical quirk. Real have become masters of the rope-a-dope, and the common denominator is the man in the dugout. Zinedine Zidane stands on the brink of history, and this was a victory covered in his fingerprints.

The decision to take BBC off the air was the first point of contention. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale were both left on the bench in favour of Isco and the much-maligned Lucas Vazquez with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line. It was an attacking trio rarely put into practice before, yet one Zidane relied upon to secure a first-leg advantage.

It would be generous to suggest the initial plan worked. Real were level at half-time more through circumstance than design, Marcelo’s fine effort cancelling out Kimmich’s opener. But the key was that Zidane reacted. He sensed an opportunity and took it, removing Isco and bringing on Asensio.

It was an inspired move, and Zidane’s two biggest decisions – to make a half-time substitution and to start Vazquez – bore ultimate fruit. That combination – that bravery – was rewarded with a first-leg lead to take to the Bernabeu next week.

The game management as soon as Asensio scored was also impeccable. Vazquez was moved to right-back with Dani Carvajal forced off through injury, and Mateo Kovacic was brought on to provide stability and see out the result. Bayern had two shots on target after Real took a 2-1 lead, the last of which came in the 63rd minute. The visitors were ruthless in suffocating this game, and it was Zidane who was left standing by the end, holding the pillow.

If the accusation regularly levelled against Zidane is that he is lucky, then the truth is that you make your own luck. The Frenchman locked horns with the experienced Jupp Heynckes and emerged the victor. This season alone, Zidane has engineered wins away at the champions in France (PSG), Italy (Juventus) and now Germany. Few would argue Real have not underachieved on the domestic front in 2017/18, but they have kept the pace in Europe. In his third season as a manager, Zidane still has a chance of winning a third consecutive Champions League trophy.

Those who suggest his success is the inevitable consequence of having the best players and biggest budget at his disposal would be advised to think again. A seasonal spend of £40million has left an unbalanced, above average squad littered with brilliant individuals. This was a game to expose the weaknesses of the players as much as it was to prove the strengths of the coach steering them.

Matt Stead


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