In little more than four months in charge, Zinedine Zidane has pulled Real Madrid back from the brink to where they feel they belong: the European Champions League final.
Guiding Real to victory over Madrid rivals Atletico from the dugout on May 28 would earn Zidane another place in the club’s record books to go with his history on the pitch.
Zidane’s success may owe more to his manner and aura than his abilities as a coach. He succeeded Rafael Benitez in January after just 18 months in charge of the club’s reserve team – with unconvincing results – and a season as assistant to Real’s previous coach, Carlo Ancelotti.
He stood out only for his legacy as a player, above all his winning volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final. But it did not take Zidane long to get results.
Not only is he taking Real to their 14th European Cup final – he has also picked up more points over the first 20 league games than any other coach in the club’s history – winning 17, drawing two and losing one.
That gave Real more points over the period than eventual La Liga champions Barcelona. Real fans were left wondering what might have been had Zidane and not Benitez succeeded Carlo Ancelotti last summer.
Zidane’s era began with an impressive 5-0 thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna and big wins over Sporting Gijon and Espanyol. But he was forced to rethink his approach after a derby defeat to Atletico.
Since that day, Real have won their final 12 league games, although they rarely matched those early performances.
Their path to the final gave them little to brag about – they survived a potential elimination to Wolfsburg and only got past Manchester City in the semi-finals thanks to an own goal.
Just as Benitez did, Zidane looked to Brazilian midfielder Casemiro to provide greater balance in midfield, curbing the influence of flair players James Rodriguez and Isco. But he has managed to avoid the criticism that dogged Benitez for the same moves, which says a lot about his enduring appeal.
“He’s a legend of the club and that makes you more motivated when you train with him,” said Sergio Ramos, Real’s captain.
Zidane has also won over the player that matters the most at Real – Cristiano Ronaldo.
“We’ve always been behind Zidane because he is a humble person who likes to listen, and that always makes things easier,” Ronaldo said.
Zidane has often underplayed his achievements. He highlights the work of the players and has said more than once he will earn the right to stay at the club only by winning trophies.
Delivering the club’s 11th European Cup would assure both his immediate future and his place in Madridistas’ hearts.
He will still have a way to go, however, before he is considered among the coaching elite.