It adds an assertiveness, a self-belief. It is also one of a few ways Madrid have changed since Manchester City beat them 2-1 at the Bernabeu, almost six months ago. Zinedine Zidane’s side have actually changed in more ways than even that absurd timespan should allow.
For one, they are now Spanish champions, for the first time in three years, and just the second time in 12.
That has made Zidane’s team different psychologically, to go with a difference in fitness and a difference in form.
That 2-1 defeat to City was actually one of four defeats in seven games at the time, with an uncertain Madrid only winning two, and ceding the title initiative to Barcelona. They just didn’t look on it, and were effectively overrun by City late on in that first leg at the Bernabeu.
There is none of that now. They’re the ones doing the overrunning. Their pace since the resumption of football has been remarkable, and title-winning. Madrid immediately won 10 in a row to claim the league, only dropping points in a final-day 2-2 draw at Leganes after first place had been secured.
As ever with Zidane, there is no great secret or story as regards that transformation. He just maintained the focus he always does.
There may be questions about whether or not he has a grand ideology as a manager, but it’s by now clear that his personality is perfect for the Madrid job.
That is said to have become even more apparent in lockdown. At an uncertain time, when many players were as worried as anyone else, Zidane’s composure is said to have been hugely reassuring. That can make an extraordinary difference. Zidane managed to get them to maintain a focus. That certainly transmitted to the pitch by the time they were ready to play again. Focus is the word that best describes how Madrid performed. It was as if nothing fazed them in that run.
“He’s a unique coach,” Ramos said after securing the title. “Our objective was very clear. There were no doubts in our mind, and we have shown that on the pitch.”
Madrid were also more ready to play than ever – literally. Many believe the club have the finest physical conditioning department in football. New appointment Gregory Dupont is said to have come into his own here, and particularly in the space afforded by lockdown. His innovative and inquisitive approach gave the side an edge.
The French doctor was the first person Zidane turned to last summer after losing faith in Antonio Pintus following last season’s shambles, which also saw Zidane himself come back in March. Known as ‘McGregor’ among the Madrid squad for his inquisitive devotion to fitness, Dupont previously worked with Celtic, as well as the French national team during the 2018 World Cup.
Didier Deschamps felt he was essential, and Dupont isn’t the only common strand between Madrid and that France, to go with a lot of players. They are both lavishly talented teams built on strong defences, the managers giving the star attackers relatively simple plans thereafter.
Those stars are meanwhile primed to be at their physical optimum when it matters most. That could be particularly key if Madrid get through to what is effectively a mini-World Cup in Lisbon. You only have to look at the 2018 World Cup. While both Belgium and an admittedly stretched Croatia looked spent by the end, France were as fit as they’d been all tournament. This is the approach Zidane is benefiting from.
While Madrid were running at full pelt, though, a significant part of their title victory was that Barcelona kept faltering. It may well be the main story of that league win.
This is the problem in Spain right now. If one of the big two just stands up strong, their sheer size means it can often be enough to win a title. That is also why this tie poses a very different test for Zidane and most of this squad.
It’s well known by now that he’s never lost a two-legged tie, but that stat actually goes a bit deeper. In nine previous Champions League ties under Zidane, there has only been one occasion when Madrid have gone into a second leg behind.
That was just his second in the job, a 2-0 defeat away to Wolfsburg in the 2015/16 quarter-finals. Madrid overran the German side in the second leg in an utterly predictable manner, winning 3-0.
Trying to come up with a plan to out-think Guardiola, when the Catalan is at home and 2-1 ahead thanks to away goals, is a very different proposition.
There’s also the fact that, until last season, overturning a first-leg home defeat had become close to impossible. It had only happened six times in 63 years of the European Cup/Champions League before 2018/19. It then happened three times last season – Manchester United-PSG; Ajax-Real Madrid; Tottenham Hotspur-Ajax – although it was difficult not to feel that was influenced by the spirit of chaos that had overtaken the competition latter stages in recent seasons. Whether that spirit will persist amid the strangeness of coronavirus football is another unknown for these games.
Either way, it all adds up to a challenge Zidane has never faced before, and a real test of his mettle. It’s also a test of one of the managerial abilities that are still a bit of a mystery with him. The Madrid players all say he is actually tactically brilliant within matches, and reacting to what happens with instinctive and insightful decisions. Whether he can come up with a starting plan beyond their broad gameplan is more of an unknown. He’s never really had to. It’s all kept fairly basic, especially in contrast to someone like Guardiola.
And this is one of those occasions when a manager has to come up with the most sophisticated gameplan possible. Madrid after all have to score at least twice, while trying to stifle one of the best attacks in football.
The return of a fit Eden Hazard will help at one end. Maybe this is his time to finally shine in the Champions League.
The suspension of Ramos will greatly undercut them at the other end. Beyond his defensive abilities, the captain is crucial on the pitch for adding a necessary assertiveness – probably arrogance – to Zidane’s focus. It is precisely the mindset that wins you Champions Leagues when you aren’t at your best, that just gets you through. That’s what the last few years have illustrated more than anything else.
Ramos knows it better than anyone else. The question is now whether a different Madrid know how to win a very different second leg to what even this team is accustomed to.
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