2015 was indeed a special year for sports. Australia won their fifth Cricket World Cup. New Zealand won their third Rugby World Cup. Novak Djokovic had perhaps had the most dominant season in the history of tennis, steamrolling one opponent after the other. But, the one I personally enjoyed the most was the dominant season which FC Barcelona had!
Barcelona was invincible in 2014. With the deadly MSN in full flow, they dominated everyone to a historic second European Treble. This dominance continued well into the 2015-16 season. On the other hand, Real Madrid was in absolute shambles. After having sacked two coaches in less than a year, they appointed Zinedine Zidane, a rookie with little experience as a manager. However legendary a player he was, I was among those who thought that he will flop spectacularly and will be sacked before the end of the season. I could have never been more wrong!
“To see Zidane in action was to witness poetry in motion. The skills, the vision, the goals, he was a sublime performer. He was unquestionably the finest player on the planet.” This quote from Paul Scholes epitomized Zinedine Zidane perfectly. His elegance and class with a ball in his feet were surreal to watch. He never had to exert himself on the pitch. He glided past opponents with effortless ease to the point that the Frenchman was footballing perfection. But, I was never able to enjoy this because he played for Real Madrid. Each time he did something extra-terrestrial, I jolted in frustration. Zinedine Zidane, the player is undoubtedly one of the Greatest Footballers of All Time. Zinedine Zidane, the manager is on course to become one of the Greatest Managers of All Time.
2015-16 was a pretty weird season for the Blaugrana. They won their 7th La Liga in 10 years and secured yet another double. But our failure in the Champions League hurt. Barca was defeating one opponent after the other, barging their way to an unbeaten streak of 39 matches. After Madrid snapped the streak in the 40th match, our season went downhill in a flash. By the end of the season, the lead in La Liga dropped from 12 to 1, and Madrid won their La Undecima in a season they were supposed to crumble.
Almost everyone had written Zidane off when he was appointed as manager. For someone who had little managerial experience, being the manager of the biggest club in the world seemed too big a bite to chew. At the start of the 2016-17 season, I thought to myself “Yes, how we ended last season was disappointing. What Madrid did was a fluke they cannot do it again. We’ll dominate again.” I was wrong, yet again!
2016-17 was the season where Zidane cemented his status as one of the world’s best as Real Madrid hit a peak. They were in a scintillating form that season. It was a complete team. They had the best goalkeeper in the world, the best defensive duo, the best full-back duo, an absolutely dominant midfield trio, and a GOAT upfront in god mode! There was no stopping them. The Blancos bludgeoned their way to a first league title in 6 years and a second Champions League triumph in succession with a 4-1 shellacking of Juventus (the team which supposedly had the best defence of the tournament). Real Madrid was at the top of the world, with Zidane weaving magic from the sidelines.
Zidane has never been a revolutionary among the managers, unlike his contemporaries Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola whose style of play has defined generations to come. What the Frenchman excels in is man-management. Real Madrid was and is a squad brimming with big personalities like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo. He extracted the best football out of the team and at the same time, managed to keep egos at check He inherited a world-class squad so close, yet so far from glory. He was the catalyst that changed the Blancos from an underachieving squad to an invincible one.
After their dominant 2016-17 season, Madrid was poised to dominate both the league and Europe. Barca, on the other hand, was at the initial stages of a now overblown crisis. Neymar stunned the world by leaving the Catalans for PSG and I had scant expectations for the season.
However, something had changed. Real Madrid was not the same team anymore. With Cristiano misfiring, they were anything but a shadow of their former self. The ageing squad was showing signs of wear and tear. In the first Clasico of the season, the Blancos were spanked 3-0 by a resurgent Barca, who had a surprisingly good start to the season. But, after two miserable seasons of watching Madrid dominate, I knew that it was folly to write them off. And unfortunately, I was right about this time.
A sensational victory at home against PSG helped Madrid regain their panache during the second half of the season. Cristiano hit form at the right time and started to score for fun again. Their midfield was looking like a cohesive unit once again. I hoped that Juventus would defeat them and then Medhi Benatia happened. I hoped Bayern Munich would defeat them and then Sven Ulreich happened. I hoped Liverpool would defeat them and then Loris Karius happened. Just like that, Real Madrid won their third Champions League in succession. I had to resist the urge to plunge my head into the toilet.
Zinedine Zidane resigns!
When I saw this headline in The Hindu one sunny morning, I froze. I was shocked that Zidane had left Madrid but at the same time, jubilant as it was good news for Barca.
Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Real Madrid!
When I saw this headline in The Hindu another sunny morning, I knew it was the end. Real Madrid was just broken in half. They were finished. I was right again. The Blancos had a car crash of a season. Under new manager Julen Lopetegui, they were tonked 5-1 by Barca. Sacked in the morning. Under new manager Santiago Solari, they were thrashed 4-0 by Ajax. Sacked in the morning. Their next manager, none another than Zinedine Zidane. The return of the prodigal son!
Currently, Spanish Football is the weakest it has ever been in decades. Barcelona, the club which won the Continental Treble twice in 10 years is now in shambles. Atletico Madrid has gone stale under Diego Simeone. But, Real Madrid is going through a phase of growth. They are a pale imitation of what they were at their peak but still remain a competent presence. There has been a drastic change in their transfer policy, over the past few years. Gone are the days where they piled in one Galactico after the other and rather, the focus is on young and upcoming talents. For every Eden Hazard, there is a Marco Asensio and Vinicius Jr. The Blancos have started the long road back to the top with Zinedine Zidane version 2.0 at the helm and with it, my love-hate relationship with Zidane unfolds into a new chapter.
This article is second in the series ‘Love Them, Hate Them, Can’t Ignore Them- What I admire most about my rivals’ by our readers. To get your perspective published, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.