Not since the turn of the century have Real Madrid stood at the peak of European football and been able to look down.
Champions League winners in 1997/98, 1999/00 and 2001/02, they were inundated with ‘nearly’ moments and close calls. But ultimately, the money that was pumped into the club counted for little in their search for the European glory of the past.
Now, they have a June 3rd date in Cardiff with Juventus to attend to. A third final in four years the summary of a dramatic twelve months for Los Blancos in which they may very well have found both the consistency and success they crave.
At the very heart of this has been the latest managerial incumbent – Real Madrid’s former Galactico Zinedine Zidane. In the wake of Rafael Benitez’ departure, Zidane was somewhat hurriedly promoted from Real’s B Team coach to running the senior squad. A move that was hardly synonymous with the appointment of a new Real manager. Zidane, while a club legend, was only baby steps into management.
Benitez departed in a mist of bewilderment, having safely negotiated the Champions League group stages, and sitting third in a tightly run La Liga race. He won 17 of the 25 games in charge but rumours were rife that he was losing control of the titanic egos in the dressing room – notably Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Isco.
Zidane’s arrival heralded a legend taking control of superstars and future legends of the sport. Amid the galaxy of stars at his disposal, he cooled the egos of several and combined expensive purchases and home grown talent for his staring XI.
It began steadily enough for the Frenchman. A thunderous 5-0 win against Deportivo la Coruna brought back a rejuvenation that seemed almost lost under Benitez. The season was a success which saw the Frenchman’s side conquer Europe to take undecima back to the Bernabeu, beating local rivals Atletico Madrid on penalties.
Since then, Zidane has emulated the clean up operation he was asked to oversee, and taken full advantage of Atleti’s and Barca’s domestic stumbles. With just two games of La Liga left, his side have control.
But his side have established European dominance when it mattered. Facing off against contenders like Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atleti, Zidane seems to demand his side step up an extra notch. Notably, Ronaldo, Marcelo and Casmeiro fought hard in Germany to attack for their result, but battled relentlessly to keep the Bundesliga champions at bay.
These are true tests of strength that seem to suggest that Real’s players are now battling for Zidane rather than themselves – such a work ethic his legendary status almost compels. The sight of his XI picking themselves up in extra time during that wonderful battle against Bayern, in which Dani Carvajal sprinted a full 15 yards just to get the ball back to the centre in the wake of Ronaldo’s equalising goal, was symptomatic of the aura Zidane appears to cast on his side
It comes to a head against Italian side Juventus in Cardiff, and Real are in the driving seat to retain the famous trophy.