“Yeah, yeah, for sure,” Zinedine Zidane said and then a familiar, knowing smile returned to his face after a few weeks in which it hadn’t been seen. Real Madrid’s coach had just been asked if this was the most difficult moment in his career. “For sure,” he continued, “but it’s like always: there have been bad moments, criticism, and today’s the same. Maybe more than before, but no problem: I’m not thinking about that. I feel like the players are going to do it on the pitch. Tomorrow is an opportunity to show that we’re a good team.”
This week they need to. Zidane needs them to, as well. And they have rarely done so this season. After picking up one point from nine domestically and losing again in Europe, the next seven days – in which Madrid face Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atlético Madrid – will go some way towards shaping their season and deciding their manager’s future. Even he is not untouchable. “I never felt I was, never,” Zidane said. “Not as a player, a coach, or person. We’re all here for a reason; I’m here for a reason [to win], and will be until the last day.”
Madrid have lost a third of their matches and won fewer than half, and that day is never as far away as it should be. Beaten three times already, they are seven points off the top, six behind Atlético, who have a game in hand. Twice defeated by Skakhtar Donetsk, conceding all five of the goals the Ukrainian side have scored in the Champions League this season, they are third in their group and face the possibility of failing to reach the knockout stage for the first time. The prospect of the Europa League horrifies, while the economic impact too would be hugely significant.
After defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, Zidane was asked directly if he was going to resign. “No,” he insisted, “I haven’t thought about that at all.” Did he have the strength to carry on, to fix this? “Yes,” he said. But he has appeared more serious, more withdrawn, more strained. From within the club the possibility was floated, and filtered, that he could walk away again. There was self-interest in that idea forming; these circumstances are not those in which he left after winning a third consecutive European Cup, a feat unmatched by anyone; and the decision need not be his.
Immediately after the defeat, the newspaper El Mundo, close to the club president, Florentino Pérez, announced that Zidane’s sacking was a matter of hours. In the meantime, Inter beat Gladbach to hand Madrid a lifeline – a draw may be enough to go through – and that same evening El Mundo backtracked, its initial tweet deleted. Madrid briefed (privately but for public consumption) that no one doubted Zidane. Yet this is a club where the manager is always questioned and always expendable, and it would be hard to survive a defeat against Gladbach. Raúl and Mauricio Pochettino are candidates to replace him.
There are reasons for concern. Madrid conceded four at Valencia and largely their performances have been as poor as their results. If there is a recognition that the squad is not as strong as it once was after a summer of austerity amid a pandemic which has seen their budget for the season fall by €300m from last year, and although there have been injuries, it is good enough not to get beaten by Cádiz and Alavés, lose twice to Shaktar, or be on the edge of European elimination. But for a late winner against Inter when they were getting overrun and an even later comeback at Gladbach, they would be out.
After defeat in Ukraine, El País quoted a Shakhtar analyst as saying: “They defend really badly; I don’t think Zidane works on that.” It is an old accusation levelled at a coach often dismissed as being “only” a man-manager, as if that were simple anyway in an intensely political environment. He has protected and relied on the old guard but this season he has appeared uneasy, changed. Something has shifted. Not long ago he was asked why he is not he same any more, if he was OK; here, when he was asked if he had the backing of the dressing room, he laughed.
“You [journalists] try things,” he said. “What players want is to play, to compete. They have always shown their affection [to me] but that’s not what matters; what matters is that they want to give their all, and people sometimes forget that. Sometimes, it’s true, things don’t come off. It’s a difficult moment but what matters is coming together, following the same path and we’ll sort this out, for sure.
“I feel the support from the club and from everyone. I can’t be happy when we lose, no one can, the players included. But we now where we are: we’re fortunate to be at this club. We have to connect to do well.”
Zidane has a habit of calling games “finals”; this time he didn’t but these three games in a week might well be, for the team and for their manager. Lose and there could be no way back, which may just be a good thing. At times, Madrid have lacked concentration, competitiveness, as if this team raise themselves only for the bigger occasions. That too is a longstanding accusation and in it lies optimism: Zidane has been here before. He has never lost an actual final and Madrid have a habit of responding when it is needed most, of seeing opportunity in obligation.
Last season Zidane was on an ultimatum when they won at Galatasaray. There was pressure on the eve of the clásico this season. And they have twice beaten Inter in the Champions League, when on edge. It doesn’t get much bigger than a season in seven days.
“I know the situation is complicated and we have been in similar situations many times, but tomorrow we have a game so that we can compete and prove what we are,” Zidane said. “I trust in my players – that’s the most important thing. We’ll try to win that game; the rest doesn’t matter to me.”