“I’ve been locked up for two weeks, as if I was in a cage, and I feel like a fight,” Zinedine Zidane said, so he went out and found one. Having tested positive for the coronavirus and isolated at home, he had heard the whispers, read the press, taken the hits and knew what lay beneath. Worse, he had watched his team. He had seen his assistant David Bettoni insist that Real Madrid’s fans “still believe because our DNA is to fight to the end” but even in empty grounds – where there are no whistles and no white hankies, judgments not delivered directly, nor pressure applied on the president – he was aware that many didn’t, not entirely. It was the start of February and it was over.
Madrid had ended January beaten by Levante, winning just twice in five league games in which they had played the teams in 19th, 10th, 17th, 18th and ninth. They had lost four times already: to Levante, Cádiz, Valencia and Alavés, not defeats easily digested. They were 10 points behind Atlético Madrid having played a game more. Barcelona were in front of them, Sevilla right behind, Villarreal close. In two weeks, they had lost the Super Cup, been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by tiny Alcoyano, and now the league looked gone, too. Their title defence hadn’t even lasted half a season, so it goes. The headlines said Zidane was about to lose his job, again.
Which tends to be when he is at his best. When they are, too. Finally released, it was time to fight back. For one day only, the smile was gone – that soft tone which, as Sergio Cortina wrote in AS, would make “the end of the world sound sweet”. Zidane was back at Valdebebas and this time it was personal. “You ask lots of things and you make me laugh. Tell me to my face that you want to get rid of me, not behind my back,” he told journalists and by extension the men whose dirty work he suspects of them of doing. “You lot do your job but according to you, one day I’m out, then in, and if we draw or lose, out again. I accept it but I’m angry. You do your job; we’re going to try to do ours. We’ll fight. A bit of respect for people who are working.”
He went on: “There’s a lot of talk about a lot of things, about changing the coach, but we’re going to fight until the end and we deserve some respect,” insistently, more animated, more irritated than anyone could remember him before, patience finally at its limited, a point to be made. “If people want me to leave it, I’m not going to. Things will change next year, it’s true, but this squad won the league last year. Not 10 years ago: last year. Let us fight for it; let those that won it last year fight and compete for it. We have that right. That was us, Real Madrid. No one else. I’m not going to leave it, and nor are the players.”
On Saturday night, two months on, Zidane stood in the middle of a storm occasionally wiping his head with a towel and watching his team beat Barcelona in the clásico – insofar as he could see them at all through the curtains of rain, drowning in the downpour. He had started a wild, wet night with three of his back four and his most expensive player out, had lost another along the way, Lucas Vázquez set to miss the rest of the season, and had finished with Marcelo, Álvaro Odriozola and Mariano on the pitch. He had just watched Barça’s Ilaix Moriba smash the bar in the last minute, left trembling as much as the players were. But he had survived and so had they, not just still standing but doing so at the top of the league at last. And although Atlético Madrid climbed back above them by a solitary point on Sunday night, Real may well be favourites now.
The clásico is that rare big game that tends to deliver, and here it had again. Ronald Koeman walked off at the end, taking his umbrella with him when the pitchside reporter failed to back his claim for a penalty on Martin Braithwaite. Gerard Piqué meanwhile walked on, Luka Modric looking at him and saying: “Come for a moan, have you?” There had been 25 shots. Federico Valverde hit the post. Lionel Messi hit the post from a corner. Karim Benzema produced another gorgeous backheel for the collection to open the scoring. Casemiro was sent off. Marc-Andre ter Stegen went up, and even got a shot away. Jordi Alba sent the last kick sailing just over. And all that in a storm that left them trembling, Thibaut Courtois admitting he could hardly feel his fingers.
Most of all, there had been another clásico win for Madrid, just as there had been earlier this season – both wins began with a Valverde break for the border – and the time before. Three consecutive wins make this their best run in more than 40 years, Zidane’s feel for the biggest stages undiminished, his team’s sense of need, that ability to react when they most have to, as if the hardest challenges are the ones they’re most interested in. They had come into the game knowing that they couldn’t afford to lose. That was the bad news but it was also the best news, and now they had done it again.
Real Madrid, the team that failed to beat Alcoyano, Levante, Shakhtar, Alavés, Cádiz, Elche and Osasuna, beat Atlético, Sevilla, Inter, Barcelona and Liverpool. They did beat everyone, in fact, once they realised there was no choice: the team that had been finished when Zidane returned from Covid-19 was first. It hadn’t always been pretty, or convincing: they needed an 84th-minute winner to beat Huesca, won 1-0 at Valladolid, equalised in the 89th minute against Real Sociedad and the 88th against Atlético, beat Elche in the 91st. Now they had watched the ball fly back off their bar in the 90th. But they had won: this was their eighth win in 10 league games, and they had drawn the other two. In the meantime, they had beaten Atalanta and Liverpool.
Zidane had done it again, again. And again. Every time he stands on the edge there is an inevitability about him emerging again, stronger than before, seemingly indestructible, those waiting to destroy him forced to wait a little longer. There’s something magic about him, something difficult to explain – although saying that risks doing him a disservice, too often handing results to divine intervention and not his. There is something about his team, too. There may be no better midfield, some even asking if there has ever been one. Courtois saves daily. Benzema is the best striker around, if striker is really the word.
“This club turns things around a lot, it’s what history shows we do well,” Nacho had said before the Liverpool game. “We never give things up as lost. Never, never, never.” At the start of February, it seemed that they had but now, with Atlético winning just four of their last 11 in the league, somehow they were there, clinging on. From 10 points behind, they finished this weekend just one off. Atlético have 67 points, Madrid 66, Barcelona 65. It’s on, Diego Simeone insisting: “I love this moment.”
Madrid love it too, they have shown that; it’s the other moments they don’t seem to respond to. And now they are where they want to be: another short run to the title, no distractions and no (more) second chances. Whether they can win the league, the next eight games will decide. And although their run-in might be judged the most comfortable of the three, afterwards Zidane said: “We’re at the limit physically.” He removed Toni Kroos, Benzema and Vinícius Júnior with 20 minutes to go. Taking them off was a risk; leaving them on was as well. “I don’t know how we’re going to finish the season,” he said. “We’re finding it hard to finish games, but we’re alive.”
And that’s something, unexpected back then. When Zidane broke free from his cage in February, he had demanded the right to compete and now here they were, drenched, tired, and – briefly – top. At the side of the pitch, pulling on a thick coat at the end of the clásico, Nacho apologised for his shivering, smiled, and said: “We still have very nice things to fight for.”