Zizou's big test

It's not easy being Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid coach.

Being Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid footballer, was a walk in the park, often literally.

He was an anarchic artist, a punk performer who spray-painted masterpieces. The Frenchman was a walking contradiction, both a team player and a temperamental maverick who answered to no-one.

He managed to be both altar boy and Sex Pistol, often in the same game.

Now, Zidane answers to everyone.

As he prepares for his first Champions League game as coach, against Roma tomorrow morning (Singapore time), he must be all things to all people.

He's expected to win a La Liga title he cannot win, with a squad he didn't assemble, so he can satisfy fans who are permanently dissatisfied by wrestling control from a dictator who sacks anyone who disrupts the balance of power.

Zidane once lived a charmed life, nonchalantly swinging a volley towards the top corner to steer Real to victory in the 2002 Champions League final. He was a living god among the Madridistas.

Now he's just the latest manager living on borrowed time, like his predecessors. If nothing is certain but death and taxes, at Real, nothing is certain but the axe and taxes.

Club president Florentino Perez's tried, tested and failed formula of hiring the latest flavour of the month to manage his beloved Galacticos, took an unusual turn when he appointed one of them for the first time.

Perez's stars are now handled by the starriest of them all and Zidane has enjoyed the inevitable honeymoon. He has dropped just two points in six La Liga games.

The players have warmed to his training sessions and coaching philosophy, hardly surprising considering he succeeded Rafa Benitez.

Short of sending out Real in a chain gang, wearing concrete overcoats and hobnailed boots, the players were always going to benefit from the Frenchman's firmly-held belief in liberty.

Benitez's stifled suffragettes are no more. The shackles were cast off. Convincing wins against Sporting Gijon (5-1), Espanyol (6-0) and Athletic Bilbao (4-2) hinted at a changing emphasis, both individually and collectively.

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Before Christmas, Cristiano Ronaldo pouted more often than a Zoolander extra, seemingly distracted by the box office of his documentary rather than his box office at the Bernabeu.

But he's back to his best. At the age of 31, he's not just scoring - good, bad or indifferent, he always scores against La Liga's lesser lights - he's also scoring Boy's Own blockbusters again.

He's dropping shoulders and duping defenders. He's dribbling and dancing, playing to those internal, hypnotic rhythms.

With a hat-trick against Espanyol and a double against Bilbao, Ronaldo is now managed by a coach who isn't wary of him, but reveres him.

Benitez kowtowed. He gave Ronaldo an inch and the winger took over Madrid. Zidane has curtailed the ego and improved the performance, by not pandering to the Portuguese's delusions of grandeur.

Ronaldo's strengths do not warrant the freedom of the Bernabeu. He's not a playmaker, but a belligerent pest. Zidane has confined him to the left wing and has been rewarded with devilishly brilliant contributions.

As the Real coach pointed out, man against man, there is still none better than Ronaldo. Why allow him to meander across central midfield when he already has Toni Kroos?

Zidane has incorporated a refreshingly retro approach, reminding his players of their attacking strengths, rather than fussing over their defensive duties as Benitez once had.

Kroos, Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric are cherishing their liberation, delivering fast, incisive football that was absent under Benitez.

On the right, James Rodriguez now offers glimpses of that cocky kid who dazzled in a Colombia jersey at the World Cup.

The biggest compliment for Zidane will soon become his biggest headache. The injured Gareth Bale hasn't been missed. At some point, the coach has to accommodate Perez's Chosen One. And therein lies Zidane's underlying objective. He must please his insufferable paymaster. He must pick Perez's players and top up the trophy cabinet.

Zidane's previous glories no longer interest the Real president. With Perez, what's past is prologue. Just ask Carlo Ancelotti.

So that only leaves the Champions League. Real's Copa del Rey exit and the four-point gap to La Liga leaders Barcelona make Zidane's task ominously simple.

All he has to do is win the last-16 tie and go on to lift the trophy.

The honeymoon is over. It's time for Zidane's first proper test.

He's removed the players' handbrake. Now they must pull away in Rome.

npsports@sph.com.sg

ROUND OF 16, 1ST LEG

ROMA v REAL MADRID

(Tomorrow, 3.30am, Singtel TV Ch 112 & StarHub TV Ch 212)


This article was first published on Feb 17, 2016.
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