While a contingency of Dutch football fans did predict that Ajax would pull off a massive upset at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, only your neighborhood’s deluded Barca fan would have foreseen Real Madrid being humbled by a shock scoreline of 4-1 last week in the Champions League Round of 16.
It may be the last thing that Madridistas want to hear right now, but my cousin, a die-hard Real Madrid fan, said it best: “Tuesday’s drubbing at the hands of Ajax is the best thing that’s happened to Los Merengues since becoming the first side in history to win the Champions League in three consecutive seasons.”
This season started off in Real ugly fashion for a number of reasons (see what I did there?), culminating at the Camp Nou stomping by Barcelona in October by a score of 5-1. That thrashing cost Julen Lopetegui his job, as he got the ax the following day after just three months in charge.
In came Santiago Solari.
Solari was a different story from Lopetegui. A former Madridista himself, the Argentine was a decent footballer in his playing days, notably sending Roberto Carlos down the line in the buildup to Zidane’s masterful volley in the 2002 Champions League Final. Fast forward some years, and Lopetegui began working as an academy coach at Real in 2013.
With such strong family ties, Solari was always going to be well-received by the Real Madrid faithful. A former Real player like Zidane, he had a higher set of expectations for the future of the club. Plus, having previously worked with the youth teams (also like Zidane), he immediately injected young blood into the first team, most notably through his inclusion of teenage Brasilian phenom Vinicius Jr.
Results were mixed: a 3-0 away defeat in the league to Eibar and a 3-0 home Champions League defeat to CSKA Moscow were contrasted by a successful Club World Cup. Four months in, Solari got an impressive away 1-1 draw at Barcelona and an even more impressive 3-1 away win against Atletico Madrid. Results aside, Los Blancos seemed to be rediscovering an identity that had gone missing during Lopetegui’s short tenure in charge.
That February form didn’t last too long though. In a matter of seven days from February 27th to March 5th, that “rediscovered identity” went out the window.
Three consecutive home defeats proved to be too much for the Real Madrid hierarchy to bear. Real lost 3-0 to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, and then again to their arch nemesis 1-0 in the league. Their horrific week then culminated with Real’s shock loss to Ajax, effectively ending their chances of winning an incredible fourth straight Champions League.
Six days later, Solari was shown the door.
Welcome back, Zinedine Zidane.
The man needs no introduction. For those unfamiliar with the history of football, Zidane is the bald guy who headbutted an opponent in the biggest sports event in the world. To the football community, Zidane is one of the most talented and successful players in the history of the sport.
As of May 2018, Zidane is also the most successful coach in Champions League history, after winning three Champions League titles in less than three years as manager of Real Madrid. His re-hiring after only nine months away from the club came as a slight surprise, but nonetheless, it makes sense. Real Madrid needs silverware, and of the current coaches either in between teams or looking to start a new journey, Zidane is the most successful of the lot in the last five seasons.
World class players know that silverware goes a long way in cementing their legacy. Zidane knew what it took to win as a player, and he quickly demonstrated that same ability as a manager. The opportunity to play under someone with such a thoroughly-documented winning mentality is a difficult one to pass up, no matter the team that they’re currently a part of.
While Zidane would probably be capable of overperforming with this current squad, he knows that his roster is in need of new life.
Eden Hazard, who is entering the last year in his contract at Chelsea, seems like the most sensible major signing to make this summer. Hazard has made clear his interest in playing for Zidane at Real Madrid, and his success in England has made him worthy of running the show for Real. This would allow Gareth Bale, who has looked unhappy at various points throughout his time in Madrid, to finally leave.
Beyond Hazard, players like Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Milan Škriniar, and N’Golo Kanté are just a few names who Zidane could potentially sign. There is enough money in the bank for Florentino Perez to sign at least two players of the highest caliber. No matter who Real Madrid signs, they’ll be happy to have a winner at the helm.
At the end of the day, Real Madrid fans have Ajax to thank for Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Bernabeu.
Only time will tell what magic Zizou conjures up this time around.