The Champions League Final is drawing nigh. In what was, up until two months ago, a catastrophic season, Real Madrid have arrived - against all odds, against all logic. They have turned it around quite literally overnight - Zidane's tactical schemes improve as the season unfolds while his arch-rivals in Catalunya implode. The team has bought time with favorable Champions League draws to figure it out.
Everything that could have gone right since March until now has. Not that footballing gods exist quite literally, but if they ever did, this season they are wearing white, and they're stroking their big white beards.
Five months ago, there were those who were ready to declare this season as some sort of strange transitional rebuild the team had to endure to find itself. It seems silly, considering last season's team broke records for consecutive wins and were just a defensive lapse away from reaching the Champions League Final. The year before they won the European Title, and no team wins back-to-back Champions League trophies anyway. But since then Carlo Ancelotti was wrongly sacked, and Rafa Benitez - through no fault of his own - was wrongfully brought in to sail a ship whose entire identity lies on aesthetic football. It was like mixing oil with water, and by Christmas, the oil had separated for good and it was clear the combination was not conducive to what Real Madrid's end goal would be.
Benitez had dragged the team's morale through the mud. His philosophy tested the players mentally, and few could see eye-to-eye with him.
A Pepe quote that surfaced from Cadena Cope yesterday brought us back to the mental state of the roster during Benitez's brief reign.
"It is a matter of hard work. At the beginning of the year Benitez told me he did not need me, that I was third choice,"
Pepe continued, switching his tone to that of optimism, praising Zidane's ability to motivate despite his rawness as a coach. "When Zidane came in people had doubts," he added. "But he has led us to a Champions League final. I hope he continues because in time I think he will be one of the best coaches.
"Zidane for me is a very good coach. He is young. I could be wrong but I think he is the first coach who can win the Champions League in his first [season]."
Zidane may have initially acted as a band-aid when Perez threw him into the fire - a short-term fix who would likely fail before unjustly brushed aside at the end of the season in favour of God-knows-who - but the tone has changed. He's flipped things upside down, quickened hearts, and turned critics into believers. He should stay - that's the consensus now. What happens in the final three matches of the season does not matter, what matters is that Zidane is building a culture, and if the team needs to endure losing along the way, then so be it.
The era of manager-shuffling should in theory come to an end, if Perez has learned anything at all. The fans long for continuity, and they will get it so long as the Board treats this process as a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Perez should hand the keys over to Zidane and let him build. The Frenchman has proved to be sound in his decision-making - undeviating from his ideas without panicking amid short-term blips. To Florentino's credit, he has empowered Zidane to do what he wants. Bench the Colombian golden-boy? Sure. Bench the Spanish stud directly competing in that position too? Go ahead.
Zidane's approach is brave, and it's detached from the players' financial value. He's earned the right to build. Real Madrid has an opportunity to evolve and grow with Zidane, and they should run with it.
He's no tactical genius, and that should be made clear. But that's not a knock, and it's just a small part of the picture. Zizou is a motivator and leader. Real Madrid's two most successful coaches since the turn of the century have been just that. Both Vicente Del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti were better motivators than they were tacticians, and both had an underrated ability to manage a locker-room of superstars while unleashing their capacities on their poor European rivals.
And besides, tactically, Zidane has grown - with no cap on the growth in sight. Before El Clasico in April, the concern was that Zidane wasn't versatile enough in his system - that he builds his attack a certain way and that he's not able to defend in a compact defensive scheme that would be conducive to the counter-attacking football that's needed to slay a giant like Barcelona.
Everyone was wrong, of course. Real Madrid went into Camp Nou and played a narrow line - closing any central gaps while forcing Neymar and Suarez wide against an impotent Barcelona side who had no answers. When they retained the ball, Zidane's men started slinging balls to the flanks in a rapid transition from defense to counterattack.
And that performance was no anomaly either. Barcelona were clearly unnerved, and that Clasico victory was the start of something extraordinary. Few could foresee it, but since that match both teams have headed into paradoxical directions. Barcelona spiralled - squandering a nine point lead in La Liga and getting eliminated in the Champions League quarterfinals; while Real Madrid are in the Champions League final, sitting one-point back of first place in Spain with two matches to go.
So what gives? Why has it become fashionable to write this team off? Sure, Real Madrid of 2015-2016 are not some kind of Alfredo Di Stefano-led five-year dynasty. Sure, they've been considerably lucky to have the path to Milan on the 28th that they've had - and sure, they just may be underdogs against Atletico in the Champions League Final; but this team deserves credit and praise, and lots of it. They've been resilient and inspiring, they are where they are today because they've grown as a team and thoroughly deserve to be here. They've done all this, by the way, when the team looked dead not long ago.
What Real Madrid are doing right now is simply amazing, and few are appreciative of it. Against Manchester City, there was enough talk to suggest that Los Blancos advanced not due to their own brilliance, but because of City's incompetence - that Real Madrid's rivals were unworthy rivals who didn't challenge them, didn't attack them, and quite frankly shouldn't have been in the top four of the Champions League this season. Of course, City's inadequacy had nothing to do with how Real Madrid pressured them, defended them, or dominated their midfield.
Real Madrid scored just one goal over two legs against this inferior opponent, and that somehow meant that that's all they had done. It's silly. Real Madrid were good - really good - particularly in the 2nd leg. City was quite fortunate to escape without more damage, yet their camp somehow spewed a different version of the events during the post-match pressers.
"Of course if you don't reach the final you miss an opportunity," Pellegrini said. "We played against a very strong team that wasn't better than us.
"You need a little bit of luck but that wasn't the reason we couldn't win the game. Tonight and the game we played at the Etihad we saw very equal teams. I don't think Real Madrid demonstrated tonight that they are better than Manchester City.
"We tried to create but we couldn't. Both teams couldn't create. It was similar in the first leg. We didn't deserve to lose this game, the goal was very lucky, a deflection into the top corner.
"There are no regrets, we worked very well for 90 minutes. That's why Real Madrid couldn't create any chances. But we needed to create in the final third and today we couldn't."
"It's a special season because we have reached the semi-final," he added. "I don't think that we deserved to reach the final but it was a bit of luck that Real will play in the final."
Pellegrini is clear in his stance on how these two legs unfolded, but he's also wrong. Some of the words in the above quotes are cringey, particularly 'Real Madrid couldn't create any chances'. For City's sake, they've hit the lottery with Guardiola's arrival this off-season - he will certainly reinvent them. Pellegrini meanwhile, a gentleman of the game and good coach, has yet to add to his legacy since leaving Villareal in 2009.
The Chilean claimed Real Madrid didn't create chances - but they did. Over the course of two legs, they outshot City by 19. Pellegrini's side was lucky not to be down by two goals after the first leg (he can thank Joe Hart for that), and in the 2nd leg, Real Madrid were even more dangerous. Then there are the intangibles - the chances that don't show up on the stat sheet. Real Madrid's wingbacks threatened continuously - Marcelo and Carvajal's runs proving to be laborious for City's flanks to deal with while Modric, Isco, and Kroos played the incisive through-ball over and over again. Real Madrid were smarter, more fluid, more stable, and simply, better. That Zidane opted to take the foot off the petal and kill the game with a possession-based scheme was not down to Manchester City, it was down to Real Madrid's tactics. It turns out that Zidane's call was the right one, further proving his rapid evolvement as a manager. And to think he's just 43! He will keep growing.
Real Madrid were blitzing Manchester City in more ways than one, and Pellegrini is one stubborn man if he thinks Real Madrid weren't creating chances. While Isco provided an extra creator in place of the absent Casemiro, Real Madrid's midfield trio picked apart Pellegrini's backline by hitting overlapping runs once they shuffled past the midfield with intricate passing. City's defense had no answer for plays like these:
"I don't think we were lucky," Gareth Bale said in response to Pellegrini's comments.
"There was a bit of luck involved in the goal, obviously, but we controlled possession. They had their moments but I don't think they had a shot on target in two games - maybe just one. We're definitely the deserved winners.
There was ample concern surrounding Casemiro's absence before the match, but everything turned out to be just fine. Toni Kroos' positioning as a defensive midfielder - the position everyone loathes to see him in - was flawless. He snuffed out passing lanes and acted as a deep-lying distributor who could push up the field and get involved in the attack without worrying about City's non-existent counter-attack. Real Madrid's midfield found a creative spark with Isco as the third midfielder, enabling them to hold the ball while activating an extra creator to work with Marcelo on the left flank - picking out his runs and dropping back to cover for the Brazilian left back when he wandered forward.
Maybe this midfield trio doesn't work against everyone, but against a toothless City who couldn't grasp how to properly suffocate and pressure their opponents, it worked just fine.
The contrast between City's approach and that of Atletico's in the final will be interesting. Against Barcelona, Simeone's men played a narrow line - an approach that could be suicidal against Real Madrid's unrivaled flanks. In the quarter-finals, Wolfsburg opted to pack the wings which stifled Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps Simeone takes a page out of Dieter Hecking's book there.
But Bale still managed to find a way to create - he's improved dramatically in getting out of tight spaces this season - and Real Madrid adjusted enough to pick apart Wolfsburg in the 2nd leg. They can also hurt you in so many ways - from the middle, to the flanks, even on set pieces. Again, Real Madrid don't get enough credit for all of this - they've been impressive in so many situations, and they've showed an ability to shape-shift their scheme based on the what the opponent gives them, enabling Zidane to throw different looks in different situations.
Real Madrid are more of a cohesive team now than they have been since last season's 22-match unbeaten run. Under Rafa, they looked lost at times, unsure of how to bring the ball forward from the backline while being slow in their build-up - in an exaggerated way as opposed to a patient one. The team now attacks with purpose and direction. The movement without the ball is fluid.
No, it hasn't been perfect under Zidane - performances away to Betis, Granada, and Las Palmas prove that - but it's been steadily improving in the right direction and Zizou deserves credit for that.
Some of this is on the players, some of it is on Zidane. Make no mistake though, it starts with the coach. His attitude, his passion, his reputation as an all-time great - these are all attributes that inspires even the biggest of stars. The players now play for something important, they play for the colours - they play for him. And that's impressive. Players don't change so easily in their ways. Zidane has turned on some kind of switch.
It took time - and it will need even more. When he first took over, Zidane was unsure of his rotations. At first it was lots of Isco and James, then neither of them. Tactically, the team struggled, and they looked chaotic defensively. In those moments, it was his personality that inspired his players more than his footballing ideas.
"Every piece of advice he gives you is like gold dust and it helps you improve on the pitch," Modric said. "Zinedine was an idol, one of the players I admired as a child. I think every young player admired him because he was one of the best of his generation."
Before, it was his demeanor that inspired the players, now, as he improves, he has the backing of tactical enhancement and results to go with it. The Real Madrid managerial belt is cold-blooded, but Zidane has earned the right start a new era at the Club.
It's time to hand over the keys, Florentino.