Zidane's Real Madrid broke Barcelona and continues breaking history
Real Madrid and Barcelona have flipped roles, and all it took was Zinedine Zidane.
Real Madrid has become the best team on the planet and only looks to be stronger than ever at the start of a new season, highlighted by a 5-1 aggregate beatdown of Barcelona using a mix of weakened lineups that featured 23-year-old Mateo Kovacic in both legs, received only about 25 minutes of Cristiano Ronaldo and witnessed Gareth Bale, Casemiro and Isco left out of the starting XI of the second leg.
Yes, Real Madrid is currently good enough to rotate a squad against Barcelona and still win both the home and away legs.
It was only 2015 when the roles were reversed and even the most erudite of football folk believed Barcelona may be the best (attacking) side ever constructed, while Madrid was a mess on the sidelines despite winning the 2014 Champions League.
In June of 2015, after a week of honoring and celebrating Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez, the man that dutifully took responsibility of being the heart of the midfield, Barcelona completed its second-ever European treble with a Champions League final win over Juventus. Of course, Xavi’s departure changed Barcelona’s identity, but the new Barcelona was still good enough to leave Real Madrid in disarray into the following season.
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti had been unceremoniously booted from the club despite winning La Decima, and Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi continued forward to play at the true dominating heights of historic football. Could Barcelona become the first team to repeat as European champions, maybe even do a double-treble? In the era of statistics, seemingly every match provided yet another record to marvel about. Every Barcelona match felt like living, breathing history.
It was November of 2015 when the Catalans went to the capital and drubbed Real Madrid 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. With the smell of champagne still detectable in the earliest of days of 2016, newly installed manager Rafa Benitez was canned in what will probably be seen as the greatest move in the history of the club due to the man that came in to carry the club.
In the face of critics questioning his managerial experience, Zidane went nearly two months unbeaten to start his tenure. After suffering his first defeat in his first Madrid derby, a player who lost the World Cup final after head-butting his opponent sounded like a man that had suffered the worst failure of his life. Zidane’s passion was undeniable.
Still, Barcelona looked invincible.
Zidane arrived at Barcelona’s doorstep to take his first shot at the champions with the Catalans having run their unbeaten stretch to a staggering 39 matches. The streak did not reach 40, as Real Madrid won 2-1 and Barcelona never touched history again. Ironically, it was a spring day that when the M-S-N incarnation of Barcelona began its slow decay. Over the two weeks that followed Zidane’s visit to Camp Nou, Barcelona lost three of its next four matches and got eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid.
In an instant, the dream of being the first back-to-back winners in the Champions League era was gone.
Instead, Zidane stole that history and made it his, as he steadied a ship that had been uneasily swaying and crashing about in the rocky waters with captains being thrown overboard at the first sign of trouble. With the way he has managed the club since, Zidane could end up being the greatest navigator of all time, and that’s not hyperbole.
In his first half season, the Frenchman won 23 of 27 matches across all competitions and won the Champions League. In fact, he only lost La Liga by a single point after erasing a double-digit Barcelona lead by winning the final 12 matches of the domestic campaign.
As an encore, Zidane gave Real Madrid its first La Liga title in five seasons, claimed the Club World Cup and became the first manager to win consecutive titles in the Champions League era. Over the span of the year and a half Zidane has spent on the sidelines, the Frenchman is the unquestionably the best manager on the planet considering his achievements.
Frighteningly, with every passing performance, his Real Madrid team looks like it’s getting even better.
After Wednesday’s routine Spanish Super Cup victory, Real Madrid’s scoring streak improved to 68 competitive matches with a goal. That streak includes every match of the 2016-17 campaign and goes back the previous season’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City at the Etihad.
One can point to Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema for the goal-scoring statistics, but the move that revealed Zidane to be a managing genius was the introduction of Casemiro to allow Luke Modric and Toni Kroos to run rampant all over the park. Currently, the key to Real Madrid’s dominance is the quality of its midfield combined with the pace, power and clinical precision of its expensive stable of finishers.
As one of the greatest midfielders of all time, one cannot mark it a coincidence that Zidane’s midfield is currently the best on the planet. Modric, Kroos, Casemiro and Isco turn the keys and unlock the doors to allow the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema to get their goals.
Zidane made Real Madrid’s midfield the best in Europe, and Barcelona’s response to purchase midfielders like Arda Turan, Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez has not worked out. Xavi’s exit in 2015 combined with Andres Iniesta slowing down and the poor purchases ultimately created a situation where Barcelona can no longer dictate the game to Real Madrid in the middle of the park. Barcelona cannot dominate possession and control the top opponents as it once did, even if Messi can still be magical, Iniesta can seam the odd pass or Suarez can finish a skillful chance.
As a whole, Barcelona is nowhere near as good as Real Madrid currently.
Take Messi off the current Barcelona side, which just lost Neymar to PSG and Suarez to injury, and one finds it difficult to guarantee that it finishes in the top four in La Liga and even qualifies for the Champions League the following season. Ronaldo received a five-match ban for his red card and subsequent referee shove in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup, and nobody seems to have panicked in the slightest. Especially not after Real Madrid hammered its rival on Wednesday, with a second wonder strike in as many matches from 21-year-old wonder kid Marco Asensio.
Even if Neymar had stayed, one would have found it tough picking Barcelona over Real Madrid in La Liga, head-to-head or in the Champions League entering the 2017-18 campaign. But without Neymar, the Catalan club needs a massive re-tooling enterprise that likely involves spending the more than quarter billion dollars they received for Neymar, and then some.
The heavy defeats in the Spanish Super Cup and the transfer window remaining open until the end of the month ensure that Barcelona will be in the market looking to spend a fortune. Adding a midfielder like Paulinho is a start, but adding someone like the long-rumored Philippe Coutinho alone would not be enough to bridge the gulf separating Real Madrid and Barcelona currently. From the back four to the front three, on the bench and especially in the middle of the park, Real Madrid is simply deeper, stronger and more talented than Barcelona all over the pitch, in the dugout and especially on the sidelines.
If the flip-flop in roles from 2015 to 2017 has taught us anything, though, it is that these teams can flip positions in an instant. At the moment, though, Zidane’s Real Madrid wears the crown and doesn’t look the least bit interested in taking it off for anyone.
Least of all Barcelona.
Shahan Ahmed is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA
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