Monday’s news that Zinedine Zidane has returned to manage Real Madrid, the club he led to a third straight Champions League title last spring before walking away from one of the global game’s most coveted and precarious job, seemed to materialize out of thin air.
Maybe it shouldn’t have. After all, why wouldn’t Real president Florentino Perez want Zidane back after the indignity of recent weeks, when Europe’s record 18-time champ lost twice to blood rival Barcelona before being unceremoniously dumped out of the world’s premier club competition by comparatively frugal Dutch giants Ajax.
Those were just the latest embarrassments this season. It’s been a brutal year at the Bernabeu from the start. Zidane’s well-regarded replacement, Julen Lopetegui, arrived controversially from the Spanish national team, having been fired by the country’s federation — literally on the eve of the 2018 World Cup — for secretly accepting the Madrid job before the tournament. Lopetegui lost his first match to hated crosstown foe Atletico, and things only got worse from there. Thirteen games later he was gone, whacked, to the surprise of nobody, after a 5-1 drubbing by Barca in the season’s first Clasico.
In came Santiago Solari, who lasted just five months before getting his walking papers on Sunday. Rumors of Jose Mourinho’s return had swirled. But then Mourinho’s stock has plummeted in recent years, and besides, Mourinho’s record in Spain was so-so at best; he won just one domestic crown and zero Champions League medals during a three-year stint that ended in 2013. So now, suddenly, it’s Zidane’s team again, the French legend having mercifully and dutifully answered Perez’s desperate call for help.
Zidane has always been a man of principle. (Just ask Matteo Materazzi). Real Madrid, where he won six titles as a player, runs through his veins. He made more appearances for Los Blancos during his glittering career than with any other club. He remained in the Spanish capital throughout his sabbatical. And given the depths his former team have sunk to since he left last May (Real currently sits third in La Liga, a whopping 13 points behind pace-setter Barcelona), he likely viewed the opportunity as an obligation. He must have. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand why he would even want the gig back.
There’s a reason why Zidane left when he did. Despite his unprecedented hat trick of Champions League wins, despite the club record 25-match unbeaten streak he put together at one stage, the axe was almost always hovering above his head. That’s just how it goes at Real, and Zidane knew it as well as anyone.
Zidane was criticized relentlessly during his first spell in charge for not being good enough in the league. Real won La Liga just once during those three seasons. Had it not come during the middle year, he probably wouldn’t have been kept around for a third season at all.
As a player, Zidane had six bosses in five seasons in Madrid, including five over his final three years. Changing managers is what Perez does. Only the luckiest ones leave on their own terms. Second acts rarely go well anywhere, but returning to Real carries particular risk for Zidane, who presumably would’ve had his pick of any vacant job in Europe this summer.
Unless Zidane immediately turns Madrid around the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did Manchester United after replacing Mourinho in December, Real is again likely to finish behind Barca and Atletico this spring, just the same as last year.
Zidane will get a pass over the next two months if he merely stops the bleeding. But this Real squad, for all of its of its obvious quality, has some serious structural problems. Too many unhappy veterans have been relegated to the bench. Too few youngsters, save electrifying Brazilian teenager Vinicius Junior, have pushed their way into the starting lineup. Most damning of all is the fact that Perez has failed to adequately replace Cristiano Ronaldo in consecutive transfer windows.
Zidane will demand and receive reinforcements, of course. He’s a good coach and has proven it beyond doubt. Nobody wins three Champions Leagues by accident. It will still be nearly impossible for Zidane to duplicate the fantastic achievements he previously enjoyed on Real’s sideline, success that just barley allowed him to survive the job the first time around. Only another haul of trophies will let him see out his new contract until it expires in 2022. The clock is already ticking.
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