Zidane began his second spell as Real manager with a 2-0 defeat of Celta Vigo, but what does this mean moving forwards?
Real Madrid’s 2-0 win against a woeful Celta Vigo side at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday was not enough to confirm Zinedine Zidane as a miracle worker, but the coach will still have learned plenty about the group of players he has to work with from now until the end of the season.
The repercussions of this game and the remaining league fixtures to follow could be significant as Madrid head in to a summer of huge transition.
The natural question regarding Zidane’s return to Los Blancos is what exactly the Frenchman had to gain in going back.
Zidane enjoyed a winning return to Real Madrid Matching the three back-to-back Champions League titles he achieved in his first spell is unlikely if not impossible, and with many of the core players from that team now older and slower, a challenging restructure is needed to get the LaLiga giants back to winning ways.
But in answering the club’s call when Madrid are at their most desperate, Zidane has gained significantly more of something he didn’t have enough of even at the height of the club’s recent European dominance – power.
Power to change what were previously seen as foregone conclusions about who stays and who leaves, and power to bring in the reinforcements he believes are necessary. The kind of power that is rarely, if ever, afforded to a Madrid coach.
The evidence was already on show with the Frenchman’s first XI at the weekend.
Dropped straight back into the line-up, Isco made his first start since October 28, the Andalusian not doing so at all during the entirety of Santiago Solari’s reign, and until last week seen as a near guaranteed departure in the next transfer window. Back too was Marcelo, who was demoted by Zidane’s predecessor for youngster Sergio Reguilón. As was Marco Asensio, who only featured sporadically under Solari.
Perhaps the biggest statement of all was in goal, where Keylor Navas returned for his fourth league start of the season while a fit Thibaut Courtois sat on the bench.
Navas was restored to the starting line-up at Courtois’ expense Debate over who Madrid’s number one should be was one of the early signs of friction in Zidane’s last spell in charge at the club; the Frenchman believed multiple Champions League winner Navas was more than competent enough to continue as first choice, while the club sought to bring Kepa, now of Chelsea, in as a competitor.
Zidane won that battle, but when Madrid pushed ahead to sign Courtois last summer the demotion of Navas was ultimately completed regardless. Until March 16, at least.
The Costa Rica glovesman responded strongly to the backing of his mentor against Celta, producing an excellent, agile save with an iron hand to push away a golden chance for Maxi Gómez that would have put the Galicians ahead in the first half. The stopper also demonstrated his greater mobility than Courtois by coming out sharply to collect balls chipped over the Madrid backline that could have caused problems.
And when Madrid finally broke the deadlock, the move started with Keylor coming quickly off his line to punch away a Celta corner.
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The European Champions broke at the other end, with Asensio driving forward then brilliantly fooling the opposition defence with a feint before slipping Karim Benzema through. The Frenchman squared, and Isco (who else?) put the ball in the back of the net. A goal involving three players who were frozen out, and have instantly made a case to be reconsidered thanks to Zidane’s backing.
There were more statements yet to come.
Gareth Bale, who has had a tumultuous season in the Spanish capital, was also afforded a starting spot by Zizou, and though his impact against Celta was almost exclusively in the box and less evident on collective play, the Welshman’s right-footed finish off the post to double Madrid’s lead was a welcome contribution at a key moment as the visitors pushed for an equaliser.
Fittingly, the disguised pass for the assist came from Marcelo, who reminded the doubters that his impact in an attacking capacity remains intact.
Zidane will want Bale to be more consistently involved in play if he is going to throw his weight behind the Wales international and try to prevent a departure this summer – the forward’s repeated fading in and out of matches has hurt his team in a number of games – but getting on the scoresheet is a good start, and with more training sessions under the Frenchman the number 11 could yet be returned to something close to his best.
Bale secured Real all three points with their second goal against Celta Equally, doubts over how much of a liability Marcelo now is to Madrid’s defence will not be extinguished by a win over one of the poorest teams in the league, but the Brazilian at least looked inspired again, which is more than can be said about him for most of the season so far.
Tougher challenges will come as the season wraps up, and the structural deficiencies that have hurt Madrid this year did not evaporate against Celta (the opponent’s lack of quality in the final third meant Real went unpunished), but what is clear is that with Zidane back, all bets are off.
Any previous conclusions about who is considered good enough to start, or even to stay at the Bernabéu, are being questioned now, and the returning manager’s impact on the club’s incoming transfer activity will also be significant.
These next two months will be huge in shaping the future of Real Madrid.