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Real Madrid’s Zidane, more than merely guiding Galacticos, is laudable for nurturing lesser lights

Ian Hawkey writes it has been Zinedine Zidane's impact on the likes of Lucas Vazquez and Mateo Kovacic that has instilled in Real Madrid a title-worthy quality.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane shown during the Copa del Rey match on Wednesday night. Javier Soriano / AFP / November 30, 2016
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane shown during the Copa del Rey match on Wednesday night. Javier Soriano / AFP / November 30, 2016

Zinedine Zidane can expect to clock up a few milestones before the year’s end.

Figures that give him the most successful opening year as a head coach of Real Madrid are being compiled, for a start – since his debut on the bench, on January 9, he has overseen just one Primera Liga defeat. More imminently, his Madrid ought to score their 100th league goal under him, and all logic says they will do so this on Saturday afternoon.

Here is a stat to whet the appetite ahead of the season’s first el clasico at Barcelona. In 33 league matches in the Zidane era, Real Madrid average three goals per game.

So if Barca, the defending champions, are to keep Madrid from scoring, that would be some achievement.

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If they are keep them from extending their lead at the top of the table, it would in turn counter some of the gloomier forecasts around Barcelona right now.

Whisper it, but Zidane’s Madrid look like such a juggernaut, Barcelona probably have to do that to stop a negative energy descending over Camp Nou and festering dangerously through the winter break.

A Madrid win would stretch the distance between club football’s fiercest rivals to nine points.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that when Zidane was presented with his first opportunity to manage a top flight team 11 months ago, after Rafa Benitez had been fired amid some audible dressing-room grumbling, he looked like a stop-gap.

But he was a risk, for all the aura he carried as former Madrid player of undoubted superstar quality. He had no experience at the top level as a coach; his apprenticeship, over 18 months in charge of Castilla, the club’s youth team, had produced mixed results.

Within five months he had won the Uefa Champions League. A dream start, indeed, though there had been hiccups, and some of those were articulated on the day of the sole defeat he has known in the Primera Liga in his period on the touchline, at home to Atletico Madrid 10 months back.

That day Cristiano Ronaldo, agitated and not afraid of sounding arrogant, declared: “If everyone here was at my level, we’d be top!”

Asked to explain, Ronaldo went further, and named names. “I don’t mean Lucas Vazquez and Mateo Kovacic aren’t good players, but when Gareth Bale, Marcelo or Pepe aren’t there, it’s harder.”

He later apologised for offence caused to junior teammates.

Zidane kept his own counsel over the unhelpful outburst from his main man. And what he then did, over the ensuing weeks and months was systematically promote the sorts of junior players Ronaldo had scorned. Vazquez is now a full Spain international, and may well occupy the position vacated by the injured Bale on Saturday. Kovacic may start too, having impressed in central midfield in the recent absences of Toni Kroos and Casemiro.

Madrid come into the showdown on the back of a walloping Copa del Rey win – 13-2 on aggregate - over Cultural Leonesa, which Zidane took as an opportunity to use so-called ‘lesser’ squad members – one of them, Enzo Zidane, the manager’s son, scored his first senior Madrid goal.

Vazquez, the defender Nacho, the striker Marco Asensio have all revealed a depth to Madrid’s resources that Ronaldo may have doubted but that Zidane has nurtured in a year that has not only been startling for the run of results but also for a conspicuous lack of superstar summer signings in the one full transfer window of the Zidane management period.

Granted, Alvaro Morata, the Spain striker, returned in July from Juventus, and may have more opportunities now that Bale is out until April, but it is Zidane’s encouragement of the likes of Vazquez, Isco, Kovacic and Asensio that have endorsed his coaching instincts as much as anything.

And all that is noted within Barcelona, where, after just two wins in their last six games across competitions, confidence is brittle and questions about strength-in-depth seem especially pertinent.

Barca’s fabled youth development system is not unearthing as many first-team-ready talents as it used to. The new signings of the last year, men like Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal and Paco Alcacer remain marginal contributors.

That is why Luis Enrique, Zidane’s counterpart, frets about how many minutes his wounded but trusted stalwarts like Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba might manage on Saturday in spite of fitness problems against opponents who almost always score under Zidane, and will arrive with their tails up.

Player of the week

• Ciro Immobile

At the age of 26, Ciro Immobile, the Italy centre-forward, has already completed a grand tour of Europe’s leading leagues: a stint in Germany, a spell in Spain. But home is apparently where the heart is for a striker who once outscored everybody else in a Serie A season. Following his summer transfer to Lazio, who take on AS Roma in the capital derby on Sunday, he seems to have rediscovered his best assets.

Ciro for Miro

Immobile was given a hard act to follow when Lazio agreed a fee of close to €10 million (Dh39m) with Sevilla for the former Torino and Genoa target man. Miroslav Klose, the record-breaking German goalscorer, had just retired, much loved by laziali, but approaching his 38th birthday. Lazio knew they would miss Miro, the penalty box predator par excellence. Over to you, Ciro.

Tough boots to fill

Immobile had left Italy two years earlier, when Borussia Dortmund signed a deal to take over his rights from his then his co-owners, Torino and Juventus. He had just finished the season, with Torino, as Capocannoniere, top marksman in the Italian top flight, his 22 league goals quite a haul for a man at a middling club. At Dortmund he also had a hard act to follow, that of Robert Lewandowski, the prolific Pole who had left Dortmund for Bayern Munich.

German angst

His sure goalscoring touch faded in the Bundesliga. Dortmund struggled, too, in head coach Jurgen Klopp’s last season there. Though Immobile notched up four goals in the Uefa Champions League group phase, domestic football meant long barren spells. He scored just three times in the Bundesliga in 2014/15, and, as he acknowledged to Kicker magazine, he found “German a very hard language to master.”

Andalucia adventure

When Thomas Tuchel succeeded Klopp, he ordered that Immobile no longer use an interpreter to communicate with colleagues. By then, both parties were open to a move, Sevilla taking the tall striker on loan, then making the deal permanent. Yet by January, after making limited impact in Spain, he was on the move again, anxious for regular starts ahead of Euro 2016 where he hoped to part of Italy’s plans. He was in those plans, thanks to a productive six-month loan at his ex club, Torino.

Sky blue horizon

Immobile has remained a key member of the national squad. He might, after the Azzurri quarter-final exit from the Euros, have stayed on at Torino; Napoli were also keen, it seems. But Lazio persuaded him, made the best offer to Sevilla, and are pleased with the investment. Immobile is their leading scorer, with nine goals in Serie A so far this term. In the derby, he hopes to add to that, and to better Roma’s in-form Edin Dzeko in the duel of the centre-forwards.


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Updated: December 2, 2016 04:00 AM

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