Crucial Zinedine Zidane decisions which could propel Real to title
Holly Thackeray | February 6, 2016
Real ruthless with Zidane
When former France and Real Madrid playing legend Zinedine Zidane took up the mantle of manager, Los Blancos were down but far from out of the Liga title race. Now just four games and 17 goals later, can there be talk of Real rallying to wrestle for the top prize?
Coral have awesome odds of 9/1 available for Real to win La Liga under their newly anointed king, with the Spanish giants just four points from the summit and Barcelona, though the Catalans are clutching a game in hand.
That card up the Nou Camp club’s sleeve could well be erased, however, when Los Blancos visit Barca’s patch for a bitter El Clasico battle in April. Yet, there is plenty for Real to do first if they are to make that clash count.
Currently playing catch-up, Coral writers contemplate which decisions could define Zidane’s debut dugout season. As the ex-Galactico himself has said, the title race is “not over yet.”
In defence of Danilo and Carvajal
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention in Zidane’s short tenure so far, is the wrangle for the right back slot. It’s a conundrum that is quintessentially Real Madrid; shell out over the odds for a flashy full back in summer, despite having only just forked out to bring your homegrown hero back to the Bernabeu, dithering over which defender to back.
La Roja squad regular Dani Carvajal was reared in Real Madrid B before being shipped off to Bayer Leverkusen and the Bundesliga, where he shone. Everyone knows the story of how Madrid brought the Spaniard back, but then it seems he stopped being so fashionable.
In a typical tale of the grass is always greener, the capital club plucked Porto’s latest Brazilian superstar, Danilo, reportedly beating off interest from Manchester United, who actually required a right back.
Competition was the guise under which the Samba star was grabbed, but his outings on Spanish soil have been seriously underwhelming, though he has so far cut the accomplished Carvajal’s game time.
Injuries also played a part, but Carvajal, an impressive performer this campaign, was restored to right back amid much relief from fans for Zidane’s first official outing.
Rearguard reliability required
Yet, despite his dangerous linking up with Gareth Bale down the right wing, the defender found himself mysteriously cut for a disappointing away draw at Real Betis, seemingly dropped for Danilo despite mixed messages as to his absence.
Unsurprisingly Carvajal was the favoured full back again for Real’s rampant 6-0 smashing of Espanyol, but there has been the usual speculation in Spain as to whether Danilo’s pricetag will put pressure on Zidane to play the Brazil international.
It’s easy to say, but the Frenchman should stick firmly by form for his selections, leaving his Spanish charge as starter. It is far from Danilo’s fault that he is yet to adapt to the rarefied atmosphere at Real and it is always a thankless task to challenge a local lad, when they are few and far between at the club.
Therefore, it would be best for both parties if the stuttering South American was temporarily shelved to allow a regular rearguard rhythm to develop, with a spell in the shade perhaps just what Danilo also requires to revive his Real career, away from the unforgiving glare of the Madrid media.
Madrid Midfield balance
Tinkering with defence is just one part of what Zidane must do to tip the balance from La Liga dark horses to challengers once again.
Under both former bosses Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez the midfield formula of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric was questioned; not for lack of silk but lack of steel.
An upcoming Champions League clash will be the biggest test yet for Zidane’s tenure, so might he want to try Brazilian shield Casemiro out for size. For most matches it is true that crafty Kroos, surprisingly tougher of late in his deeper position, and deft Modric are intelligent enough to intercept and hold down the fort.
But, there is little wrong with some variety when trying to challenge on all fronts, and a crunching tackle or two does not go amiss, especially should Madrid meet an English or German club quick on the counter.
If Casemiro is not cut out to make the grade, Real must hope they do not suffer serious repercussions from their transfer ban, as adding conductor Matteo Kovacic from Inter Milan in summer did little to mix up the midfield components.
Another body in upcoming matches, especially if adaptable Isco is not to start, might just ensure Real do not suffer anymore shocks on the road in the ilk of that drab Betis battle.
Fluidity over French connections
One thing the Spanish juggernauts have not lacked is panache, especially since Zidane swaggered into the hotseat, with all but one of his games in charge seeing five or more scored.
In bigger games to come, though, they will need to refute the reputation of flat-track bullies, and this responsibility lies as always, mainly with the front three or four.
Barcelona’s brilliant fluidity and understanding between fearsome front three Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has already reaped all the most prestigious rewards possible and could be on the path to repeating. And, this intuitive understanding and sometimes selflessness is not something Real (5/1 to win the Champions League) have found always easy to come by with their own expensively assembled XI.
At times Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have threatened to be just as devastating, though occasionally the chemistry is arguably amiss.
Transfer ban notwithstanding, at least one looks likely to leave in summer if the tabloids are to be trusted, with Isco and Colombia World Cup hero James Rodriguez’s futures also on the ropes.
Under Zidane there is the chance for a fresh start, but his French connections with striker Karim Benzema should not become too influential.
“A big brother”
Benzema has previously called his compatriot a “a big brother”, with Zidane recently stating that France would miss the forward if he does not make the cut for Euro 2016 due to off-field issues.
The coach told press: “To respond clearly, no, France can’t allow themselves to do without a player like Benzema.
“When you see his stats, what he does on the pitch, you don’t want to do without a player like that when you have the possibility of having him in the team.
“With Madrid it would be difficult for me to do without a player like Karim.”
Zidane went on to praise his countryman’s link-up play as well as scoring prowess, and it is true that arguing with Benzema’s tally of 18 in 17 Liga outings and his brilliant build-up, is tough.
Too many talented cooks
Yet, something up front surely has to give now Ronaldo is back firing on all cylinders, having recently completed his record 39th career hat-trick, and Bale is also due to return.
Those two Galactico signings have proven their mental strength on numerous occasions, while it can be argued Benzema has sometimes flattered to deceive. In career showings against Barca, for example, there have been just seven strikes in 24, while city rivals Atletico Madrid have conceded only three from the frontman in 21 outings.
With the prolific wing pair of Roanldo and Bale more than capable of taking care of the scoring side of things, could more fluidity be found by playing both of James and Isco, who are simply too talented to allow to thrive elsewhere?
Many would disagree, but James has shown glimpses of being a world class game changer. Now, after two assists and a goal in as many matches he could once again be sidelined by Bale’s return. While, inventive Isco also continues to improve and is able to tuck inside and add grit in a way others cannot.
Isco’s ability to keep and recycle possession could prove crucial when facing the likes of Barca, and in continental competition. Whoever will miss out Zidane must decide, and the fall-out will only favour their competitors if the wrong choice is made. Intriguing times ahead.