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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Real Madrid players face 11-game audition as Zinedine Zidane demands they 'start from zero'

Frenchman may only have been away for 10 months but the players he left behind have only a few matches to fight for their futures

Zinedine Zidane reportedly told his players that his return should mean everyone is 'starting from zero, and forget the past'. Reuters
Zinedine Zidane reportedly told his players that his return should mean everyone is 'starting from zero, and forget the past'. Reuters

When Zinedine Zidane arrived for his first day at work on Wednesday, he apparently spent no more than half an hour arranging his desk, adjusting his swivel chair. He needed no more. He has not been away for long, and, uniquely for an occupant of the office of Real Madrid manager, does not need to check for the concealed ejector-seat that most others discover is one of the furnishings.

He then strode out onto the practice pitches at Valdebebas and told Madrid’s first-team players that although it might, a mere 10 months since he resigned from the post, seem like nothing had changed, they should regard this as “starting from zero, and forget the past”.

It was a well-intentioned line, but not so easily achieved. Madrid may have gone through two different managers, Julen Lopetegui and Santi Solari, in the 287 days since Zidane was last in charge, but the make-up of the squad has not altered greatly in the two transfer windows Zidane watched from afar.

At least not in terms of numbers. Granted, Cristiano Ronaldo left last summer, leaving a vast, unfillable hole, but as Zidane surveys his troops and sets about discovering why the Madrid he led to three successive Uefa Champions League titles and one Primera Liga now find themselves out of contention for any trophy, he sees mostly familiar faces.

The few who do not know what it is to work with Zidane, who spent two and half seasons in charge until last May, include Vinicius Junior, the teenage winger from Brazil, whose progress has been one of the few joys of a wretched campaign; full-back Alvaro Odriozola; and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who pushed determinedly to join Madrid last August from Chelsea and may have wondered, at times, whether he might not have been wiser to wait.

Courtois, whose confidence is not easily bruised, is among those who will anxiously wonder what Zidane’s return means. The Belgian made his way to the top of the goalkeeping hierarchy under Solari, who replaced Lopetegui in October, after sharing the role with Keylor Navas. And Navas was No 1 for Madrid throughout the first Zidane era.

Moreover, Navas regarded Zidane as an important ally, not least when, in January 2018, the manager, usually discreet on transfer matters, made it clear he did not see the need to replace Navas when the club were keen to bring Kepa Arrizabalaga in from Athletic Bilbao.

Ironically, Kepa later replaced Courtois at Chelsea. In another twist to the complex saga of Madrid goalkeepers and managerial turnover, Luca Zidane - yes, the son of Zinedine - is back-up to Courtois and Navas.

Madrid have 11 matches left of their barren season, starting at home to Celta Vigo on Saturday, where the Bernabeu crowd has its chance to welcome Zidane back. It looks like the first of several auditions, not just of relative newcomers, but of longer-serving players whose form has dipped since ‘Zizou’ was last giving them instructions.

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From Zidane to Zidane: A timeline of Real Madrid's turbulent period of managerial drama

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What, for instance, to make of Toni Kroos’s insipid last nine months? The Germany midfielder, who supplied an eye-catching 33 assists in two and half seasons under Zidane, has set up a mere five goals this term, and if the lack of a Ronaldo on the end of Kroos’s precise passes may be a factor, it is not the only factor.

And Marcelo? The dynamic left-back was the heart and soul of the serial European champions Zidane commanded. Yet he became marginalised under Solari, as did Isco, the idiosyncratic playmaker whom Zidane found a place for in the starting XIs for the Champions League finals of 2017 and 2018.

Younger talents such as Marco Asensio, promoted by Zidane from 2016 to 2018 but in a slump since, have a chance to feel renewed. But Dani Ceballos, the 22-year-old midfielder, may now be regretting speaking out loud, last summer, about his anger that Zidane gave him fewer opportunities than he thought he deserved.

So too may Gareth Bale, whose very public disappointment at Zidane’s decision only to use him as a substitute - one who came on to score twice - in the European Cup final last May means his role over the next 11 games will be scrutinised more than anybody’s.

There is a wide assumption that the grand entrance of Zizou foreshadows the grumbling exit of Bale.

Updated: March 15, 2019 08:39 AM

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