Madrid: Just five months into his first senior managerial role, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane is already living up to the unenviable task of matching his credentials as one of the finest players of his generation.
Fourteen years on from the sumptuous volley that rippled a rain-soaked net at Hampden Park in Glasgow to hand Real their ninth European Cup over Bayer Leverkusen, he can become just the seventh man to win the Champions League as a player and a coach with victory over Atletico Madrid at Milan’s San Siro on Saturday.
A repeat of the outcome when Real met Atletico in the only other Champions League final between two clubs from the same city two years ago would see Real extend their dominance as the most successful club in the competition’s history with an 11th win.
Zidane was also a part of the 10th. Two years ago in Lisbon he cut an animated figure as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti as Sergio Ramos’s stoppage time header rescued Real before Los Blancos cut loose in extra-time to win 4-1.
That was the Frenchman’s final match as Ancelotti’s aid as he delved into the third tier of Spanish football with Real’s youth team Castilla to cut his teeth as a coach of his own merit.
The leap when he was then promoted to the top job at the Santiago Bernabeu to replace the sacked Rafael Benitez after an ill-fated seven month spell in charge in January seemed steep.
A very Real Madrid solution to a very Real Madrid problem, many concluded. Zidane was one of club president Florentino Perez’s first ‘Galactico’ star signings when he joined for a world record fee in 2001.
After giving Benitez the shortest of leashes, Perez bet on stardust over stability once more.
However, this time it seems to have worked. Zidane has won 21 of his 26 games in charge, not only taking Real to just their second Champions League final in 14 years, but also pushing Barcelona all the way in a La Liga title race decided by just a point when Real trailed their eternal rivals by 12 in February.
“I have a lot to learn, the desire I have to learn is tremendous and I am convinced I am going to improve,” Zidane insisted on Tuesday.
Yet, his easy-going nature and reputation as a player have instantly produced respect and results from Madrid’s often unmanageable, ego-driven dressing room.
“With Zizou’s arrival we have improved hugely,” said three-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I think everybody feels the fun comes back a little bit when he arrived,” added Toni Kroos.
Fortune has also favoured Zidane. The embarrassment of being thrown out of the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player before his appointment has ensured Real have been fresher at the business end of the season than many of their rivals.
Moreover, a run of Roma, Wolfsburg and an underwhelming Manchester City has been a far easier road to Milan than that faced by Atletico in seeing off Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Replacing an unloved disciplinarian in Benitez has also been a contributory factor to Real’s stars embracing him with open arms. Every compliment aimed his way seems like another dart meant to tarnish Benitez.
“I think when you have been a player you have a way of focusing on things in football that is different to a coach who hasn’t been,” said Ramos.
“Perhaps, that’s why although he has only been in charge for a short time, it seems like he has for 30 years.”
Zidane’s slender frame and amiable attitude still give off the vibe of a player rather than a man weighed down by the pressure of leading the richest club in the world.
“It is a game we’d all love to play… well I can’t,” he added on Tuesday with a smile that laid bare he would still feel more comfortable as a midfield maestro than sidelined observer.
Yet, despite the change from player, to assistant and now coach, the constant drive to win the Champions League remains.