Real Madrid’s stunning comeback against Villarreal, marked the umpteenth time that Los Blancos have managed to overturn a deficit and emerge victorious under Zinedine Zidane. While this is something that is not special to the current edition of the team, as the Royal Whites have an illustrious history of never giving up (see Juanito and the 2006/07 La Liga title race), it has to be said that Zidane has harnessed the “remontada” spirit at a greater level than recent managers Benitez, Ancelotti, Mourinho, and Pellegrini.
In many ways, the ability for Zidane to imbue his team with the intangibles of belief and desire is his greatest strength, something that has made a massive difference in smoothing out the bumpy road of his tactical evolution.
However, to be sure, some of the credit must go to the players, as it is probably little coincidence that Zidane’s stint as manager has coincided with the rapid growth in Cristiano Ronaldo’s leadership abilities and the maturation of Sergio Ramos into a fiery and inspiring captain who literally leads from the front in times of need (a quality present well before Zidane’s time).
But whatever the exact constituency of this remontada formula, it is undeniable that Real Madrid’s ability to believe till the last minute is this team’s greatest strength.
Lest we let this quality fly under the radar due to the odd prevalence of pessimism that seems to be hanging in the air, let’s relive five of Real Madrid’s greatest comebacks under Zinedine Zidane.
5. 3-2 vs. Sevilla (UEFA Super Cup 16/17)
What better place to start than at the beginning of this season, where Madrid opened the campaign in dramatic fashion in the UEFA Super Cup?
Going up against Jorge Sampaoli’s newly-minted Sevilla side, Zidane decided to battle fire with fire, employing an intensive press in a game defined by transitions and ferocity. The initial result was positive, as a structured press on a throw-in, deep inside Sevilla’s half, won the ball and created space for Marco Asensio to score from distance.
But two defensive errors from Varane and Ramos, coupled with some defensive compactness issues, had Real Madrid down a goal till the 92nd minute.
Enter Sergio Ramos.
With Kolo getting sent off only a minute later and the game heading to an extra period of play, it was only a matter of time before Madrid won, with Dani Carvadona duly obliging with an incredible solo goal.
As hindsight interprets it, it seems this exhilarating start to the season set the tone for one remarkable comeback after the other in the games ahead.
4. 3-2 vs. Deportivo La Coruña (La Liga 16/17)
That certainly seemed to be the case with Madrid’s narrow victory over Deportivo La Coruña at home, where Los Blancos triumphed in an eerily similar manner.
After going ahead due to Morata’s individual brilliance from outside the box (a la Asensio), Real proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot with two stupid individual mistakes (Casemiro and Ramos the culprits this time), before equalizing via a header from a Lucas Vázquez cross in the nick of time.
Sensing victory, Los Blancos frantically began to push forward, pouring men into the box till they eventually won a corner in the 91st minute.
Guess what happened next.
3. 3-2 vs. Rayo Vallecano (La Liga 15/16)
But it is important to remember that these types of comebacks aren’t a novel invention limited to Zidane’s second season in charge. Madrid were still extremely dangerous when wounded in 15/16, no matter the players injured and no matter the challenge.
Facing Paco Jemez’s goal-friendly Rayo Vallecano four matchdays from the end of the season and without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale was charged with leading Los Blancos past the home side.
14 minutes into the match and fans were already desperately looking at Bale to make an impact, as Madrid buckled under the intense offensive pressure applied by their relegation-threatened opponent.
Demonstrating his exponential improvement in heading ability, strength, and balance, Bale back-tracked from his position in the 6-yard box and ducked to the near post in order to angle a header past the keeper and drag Madrid back into the game.
Buoyed by their fire-breathing dragon, Madrid began to pound Rayo’s goal, but were held off until Lucas Vázquez, yes Lucas Vázquez, rose highest in the box to brilliantly redirect a Danilo cross in the 52nd minute
As Rayo’s shoulders dropped with plenty of time left to play, it seemed like only a matter of a couple minutes before Real completed their remontada. But the home side’s desperation to avoid relegation soon overcame their depression, as they bounced back and stood toe-to-toe with Madrid until the 81st minute.
Needing only one mistake from either side to decide the game, Rayo obliged first, as they misplaced a pass into the center of the pitch. Reading the entire play before anyone else, Gareth Bale pounced on the loose ball and turned on the afterburners, leaving his marker in the dust before drilling a low shot past Juan Carlos.
It was an incredible comeback with incredible significance, as Barcelona were collapsing and the league title looked like a possibility again.
2. 3-2 vs. Villarreal (La Liga 16/17)
Fast forward to the present, and Real Madrid executed a comeback of similar proportions and implications only days earlier.
With Barcelona passing a challenging test against Atlético Madrid to rise to the top of the table, Los Blancos were put in a must-win situation at El Madrigal.
But as has been the case in so many crucial La Liga matches in the past, disaster struck for Real Madrid. After a testy first half where both sides failed to create considerable chances, Villarreal struck with two quick goals in the space of only 6 minutes, plunging a dagger into the hearts of the supporters of the All Whites.
Realizing that he needed to re-design his flat, lethargic, and wing-oriented attacking formula, Zidane brought on Isco for defensive midfielder Casemiro in the 58th minute and switched formations from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.
The result was immediate, with the diminutive Spaniard providing his side with a refreshing blend of intelligent attacking positioning, deftness of touch, vision, and defensive presence.
It took only 6 minutes for these qualities to canon Madrid back into the game, as Isco danced into zone 14 to pick up a loose ball, before arcing a pass towards Carvajal in the box. With time and space to make a decision, the fullback snapped in a cross aimed at at a particular Welshman and watched as the ball crumpled in the back of the net.
There is no doubt that Real were the better team from that moment on, but every team needs a little bit of luck and Madrid got their’s when the referee pointed to the spot for a very harsh handball decision.
Need I say what happened next?
Clearly believing that this match could be won, Zizou brought on the fresh legs of Alvaro Morata for Karim Benzema in the 77th minute to keep the momentum on Madrid’s side.
It proved to be a wise decision, as an Isco-sparked counter-attack released Ronaldo and Marcelo, who combined before aiming a devastating missile into the box.
Using his superior speed to steal away from his marker, Morata created the space for a clear effort at goal, before dispatching his chance with a powerful header.
1. 3-0 (3-2 on agg.) vs. Wolfsburg (UEFA Champions League 2015/16)
Despite the numerous comebacks to choose from, there is no doubt about which is the greatest of them all.
2-0 down to Wolfsburg via a thrashing in the first leg of the Champions League Quarterfinals, Real needed to pull off a miracle performance, the scale of which hadn’t been achieved since the 1984/85 seasons.
To solve a task of herculean proportions, Real Madrid needed Hercules. Luckily for them, they had him in one very special Portuguese.
Clearly understanding the significance of the occasion and the momentous task ahead of him, Ronaldo turned into a force of sheer inspiration, displaying astounding desire, work-rate, and leadership, as he urged himself, his teammates, and the crowd, on to, what was in his mind, an inevitable win.
The comeback began with a bit of luck, as a deflection aided Carvajal's cross to the far post. But while everyone stood rooted to the spot, Ronaldo lashed out like a hungry panther. Not moving his eyes off the ball, he beat the offside trap and snagged his first goal of the evening.
Refusing to lose focus, Cristiano pounded a shocked Wolfsburg into submission, as he flew into the air to guide a Toni Kroos corner into the far reaches of the net.
With the tide on their side, it only seemed a matter of time before Real Madrid claimed their victory.
But the exhausting demands of Zidane's press forced Real Madrid into a lull until the end of the 1st half. The Whites came out fitter in the second period, but failed to penetrate a re-grouped and disciplined defense. Needing a moment of magic to win the game, Ronaldo stepped up to take a free kick in the 77th minute. After the most agonizing of waits, CR7 slowly pranced towards the ball and arrowed the ball through the eye of the needle and into the corner of the net.
Screaming with jubilation, Ronaldo raced towards the sidelines to face the Bernabeu, who were roaring in delight at their greatest comeback in recent memory.
Honorable Mentions: Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid (2015/16), Real Madrid 2-1 Sporting CP (2016/17), Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid (2016/17), Sevilla 3-3 Real Madrid (2016/17)