Quiet thinker Zidane’s first task is to command notoriously difficult Real Madrid dressing room
Florentino Perez needs new coach Zinedine Zidane to help protect him and restore confidence in his presidency at Real Madrid.
After dismissing his 10th manager, Rafa Benitez, Perez hopes Zidane will do for him what Pep Guardiola did for Barcelona. That is not only be successful, but help the club develop a bolder playing identity.
Madrid boast some of the planet’s finest footballers, but they are an unbalanced side and no matter how hard he tried, Benitez was as unconvincing as Madrid coach as Perez’s public declarations of support for him.
Benitez suffered significant injuries to his squad during his seven months in charge, although Madrid scored more goals than any club in the league, but the football was considered to too defensive, too cautious.
Madrid were not only hammered at home by Barçelona, but struggled while facing the best teams against which they are judged.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a microcosm of their problems. The club’s best player, he hit five at Espanyol but he did not score against Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Villarreal and, most recently, at Valencia on Sunday, for what would turn out to be Benitez’s last game.
At least Valencia fans showed their appreciation for their former manager Benitez in a way fans in his home city never did.
Madrid have only won two of their eight games against the best teams in Spain.
Ronaldo also failed to score in two matches in the Uefa Champions League against a Paris Saint-Germain who outplayed them in Madrid.
Like Guardiola when he took charge at Camp Nou in 2008, Zidane has no previous top-level management experience, although he assisted Carlo Ancelotti to Madrid’s 10th European Cup.
Like Guardiola, he has had a spell in charge of the club’s B team, yet while Guardiola was a genius at a club with deep stocks of home-grown talent, Zidane finds himself in charge of a club with problems.
He is a popular appointment with players who adored him as the linchpin in the Madrid side which won the Champions League thanks to his spectacular volley at Hampden Park in 2002.
Popular in part because he has not had to make any decisions, let alone tough ones yet, but also as someone they respected and stood in awe of as he assisted Ancelotti.
He arrives with the best wishes of former teammates such as David Beckham and he will enjoy a brief honeymoon period.
But now he needs to command a famously hard to control dressing room, where big names have big egos and preferences for former managers.
Perceived as a quiet thinker, images of him shouting while surrounded by players in his first training session on Tuesday show that he can deal with confrontation in a manner which Guardiola remains reluctant to embrace.
Zidane, a Madrid resident since he hung up his boots, also needs to have the authority denied to previous coaches because they have been undermined by construction magnate Perez. Zidane’s former coach Carlos Queiroz did not know where he stood with his president because he barely spoke to him, other than when Perez wanted to influence team selection.
A month before he won the 10th European Cup, Perez was briefing that Carlo Ancelotti’s future was in doubt.
It might be a tactic to keep a coach on their toes and show who is in power, but it keeps the club unstable, a car crash people cannot help but watch.
Madrid have worked through 27 coaches in 25 years, far more than any other major club in the world.
Benitez did not last half a season, despite repeated public assurances from Perez.
Without a league title since 2012, Madrid need to get back on track with, according to Beckham, Zidane’s “drive, passion ... who doesn’t accept failure at any level”.
“The best person for the job,” reckons Beckham. Zidane will not be given long to prove he fits that description.
Luis Enrique must bolster Barcelona squad in January
Following the first of three Catalan derbies in 10 days, 10,000 mainly young Barcelona fans watched the world champions train.
Spanish clubs hold public sessions during the holiday period, and the mood contrasted sharply with exactly a year before, when they were defeated by David Moyes’s Real Sociedad.
That defeat, when Lionel Messi started on the bench, came when the club were surrounded by several off-the-field controversies which tarnished the on-field brilliance of the team.
Barca are now on top of the world, but as witnessed with Real Madrid a year ago, that world can quickly cave in.
Luis Enrique, named world coach of the year ahead of his former teammate Pep Guardiola, is driven and focused.
He is now able to play signings Arda Turan, who will wear the No 7 shirt, and Aleix Vidal (No 22) now the club’s Fifa transfer ban has expired, but his team were niggled by their neighbours Espanyol on Sunday in a goalless draw at Cornella.
Barca hit the crossbar – Messi’s last three kicks have all hit the bar – while Luis Suarez struck the post, but Espanyol successfully frustrated them.
Unable to match their more illustrious neighbours for talent, that is what Espanyol do.
From their fans holding banners suggesting that Messi pays more attention to his tax affairs, that there is more to football in Catalonia than Barca, or that their neighbours are now more Qatari than Catalan, they set out to annoy.
Enrique said it was a fair result, but many Barca fans felt aggrieved and accused Espanyol players of being overly aggressively. Espanyol fans simply pointed out that the game had fewer fouls than average.
Enrique needs extra players if his team are going to compete as they did in 2015.
He played a full-strength side against Espanyol in the league, but is likely to make changes for Wednesday’s game against them, a Copa del Rey first leg, at Camp Nou.
Enrique would love to retain the trophy, but his priority is the Primera Liga and Barca have slipped to second after drawing three of their last four league games.
They are two points behind Atletico Madrid with a game in hand. Real Madrid, a club supposedly in crisis, are only two points behind Barca, although they have played a game more.
Enrique’s target in this month’s transfer window is an experienced striker who can come off the bench and make a difference, a role Henrik Larsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen once filled so well. Munir El Haddadi is clearly not trusted to do so at present.
Espanyol are under new Chinese ownership. Cash-strapped and losing fans – average crowds have dropped by 10,000 in six years – they have brought in former player Constantin Galca as manager and were delighted with the Barca draw.
Their fans could be pleased with the performance of youthful playmaker Marco Asensio, 19, on loan from Madrid, against Barca. Defenders Enzo Roco and Victor Alvarez were also excellent.
Camp Nou will be harder for Espanyol, but they can draw on one of the greatest moments in their recent history. In 2007, Barca needed to beat Espanyol to win the league. They were on target until Raul Tamudo scored two very late goals to deny them in a 2-2 draw, a result that handed the title to Madrid as a consequence.
Player of the week
Andres Gomes, Valencia
Having drawn three and lost one, Gary Neville is still waiting for his first league win as Valencia coach. His side’s performance against Real Madrid was their best under their new manager, with Gomes the star. The 22-year-old Portuguese midfielder is Valencia’s finest talent and he showed it with a fine display in central midfield. He Is strong, a danger when going forward and possesses a wicked right foot.
Game of the week
Real Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna, Saturday
Zinedine Zidane’s first game as manager of the team he once starred in. Deportivo are seventh and have lost only one of their seven away matches, a better record than any team in the league. A Bernabeu triumph for the Galicians on Saturday remains improbable, but they drew at Camp Nou last month and it is a tough first match for Zidane.
Since writing of Malaga’s financial problems in this column a month ago, the Andalusian side have picked up 13 points from five league games, picking up more points from those five than in the previous 13. They beat leaders Atletico and enjoyed another impressive win against high-flying Celta Vigo at the weekend.
Atletico, Malaga and Villarreal were the teams who profited most from the two New Year fixtures, with two wins from two. Fresh from a superb free kick which defeated neighbours Valencia, Villarreal’s locally born talisman Bruno Soriano scored twice as they beat Deportivo 2-1 away. The second, a 94th-minute penalty, silenced the crowd at Riazor.
Bottom of the table Levante held Atletico for 80 minutes in the Calderon, before losing 1-0. The Valencia side have only 11 points from their opening 18 games and appear doomed. Above them are Rayo Vallecano, whose own form has plummeted. They were held 2-2 at home to Real Sociedad. Just two points separate La Real in 14th with Rayo in 19th.
Updated: January 5, 2016 04:00 AM