The afternoon of the last Real Madrid defeat, Zinedine Zidane was at home, isolated by coronavirus. His team lost on January 30 against Levante at the Alfredo di Stéfano (1-2) and ended two and a half weeks in which they also missed the Super Cup, in the semifinal against Athletic, and the Copa del Rey, against Alcoyano, from Second B, and in which the captain, Sergio Ramos, was injured. In the club’s offices there was talk of the “end of the cycle” and, after lending Jovic to Eintracht, they agreed to transfer Arsenal to Odegaard, unhappy with his limited participation.
Then Zidane served his period of confinement and reappeared in public on the eve of the match against Huesca with an outburst in the press room: “Let us fight. Last year the League was won by us. Not ten years ago, last year. Just a little respect to all of this, ”he said. “We deserve to finish with the players that are there.” They were then seven points behind the leader, Atlético, who had played two fewer games.
The next day, Madrid won at El Alcoraz and from that victory to Wednesday’s draw at Anfield that took them to the Champions semi-finals, while in La Liga they are second just one point behind Atlético, they have not lost a match. At that time, Ramos underwent surgery, recovered, and injured himself again; Hazard returned and also fell again; Benzema was absent in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 against Atalanta and Fede Valverde had to play as a right-back in the quarter-round. In the middle, Varane tested positive for covid – also Ramos – and Carvajal relapsed.
In this change in trend, a Valdebebas source does not attribute influence to the coach’s public claim: “It was Zidane’s thing. The team didn’t know anything. This equipment is made of iron. Criticism and praise bounce back, ”he says. Instead, he points to the system of five defenders introduced for the first time in the final stretch of the match with Huesca: “That caused something like an effect called to all lines and to all players: either we defend more and better or we leave. fuck it, ”he says. In the following 14 games, they have conceded eight goals, 0.57 on average, compared to 18 of the previous 21 in the League, 0.86 per game. They joined the ranks and conceded a third fewer goals.
Once again, Zidane managed to convince some of the most talented players in the world in attack to grit their teeth in defense before thinking of anything else. On Tuesday of last week, after winning 3-1 in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals against Liverpool, Marco Asensio spoke briefly with his coach and went home with a feeling of special pride. Not because of the goal, but because, according to sources close to the footballer, the coach had praised his efforts in defense. He had asked him not to leave Lucas Vázquez alone with the attacks of Robertson and Mané for that band, in the same way that on Wednesday he asked him to help Fede Valverde in the same task.
The Uruguayan, who had his right foot bruised a few hours before the Anfield game, and much more inflamed after the match, took care of the plot on Wednesday that the now injured Lucas had taken care of in the first leg, fundamental in this revival of the team despite His contract expires on June 30 and there are no signs that it will be renewed. Valverde had never played as a right back, but after a few minutes of hesitation, he ended up adding eight interceptions, more than any Real player in any game this season.
Zidane achieved in Liverpool one of those marvels of flexibility that characterize him: the same eleven of the first leg (except Valverde for Lucas), arranged in the same way, played in a totally different way. The defensive waste until the last moment of Modric, Ballon d’Or, 35 years old, was moving. Asensio was once again essential to deactivate Robertson and Mané, who ended up emigrating away from his left wing. Vinicius, committed to preserving the ball, completed 24 passes with 100% success, more than in any other of his games with Madrid.
“When someone like Zidane asks them for something tactical, it takes on another dimension,” says a source with access to the locker room. Also when he is convinced of something, even against the general prognosis. Even before the first leg against Liverpool, in Valdebebas’s offices they counted between astonishment and illusion: “He has begun to say that they are going to win the Champions League.” And that seeps into the locker room. “They are convinced,” says a source close to a footballer. “And the criticisms motivate them more.” Zidane had said it on Wednesday: “It is a team that when there are more difficulties, the more it comes together.