Never mind the atmosphere inside the Mestalla itself on Saturday. There was a lot of emotion shown between the players and management; and of a type not normally seen among Zinedine Zidane’s squad save for exceptional circumstances.
It was a cold sort of emotion, as if they were there alone. The kind of emotion that comes when you find yourself in an unpleasant situation and you have to deal with it.
It was confined to the players, staff and support team. They were the ones who had to do what was needed. Afterwards, the travelling support was acknowledged and thanked at the final whistle; but then it was down the tunnel and into the changing area where the door would be firmly closed to the outside world.
Only then would the celebrations begin - but on this occasion in a more muted and business-like manner.
Leave the singing and dancing for the public face of the squad, they had achieved what they set out to do. The game had been won, but it was evident that the sense of urgency remained afterwards and will carry over into private, closed-door training sessions this week in Valdebebas.
With several big games on the horizon including the potentially season-defining match against PSG, Saturday’s result in Valencia was vital.
Emotions, although controlled, were still running high for players and staff. It was mission accomplished in a no-nonsense way. And the depth of feeling was obvious.
The goals were acknowledged on the field with a sense of finality. The ball is in the net, now let’s get on with the rest of the game.
Gareth Bale hardly even acknowledged his goal. And you could tell from Cristiano’s face that there was more behind his usual celebration than just the act of scoring.
It was almost as if he had to do it; just to show that things were normal when in fact they weren’t. That was perfectly clear; and the surreal atmosphere surrounding the events on the field would be the over-riding memory of the whole afternoon.
Karim Benzema was subbed and reacted in the dugout. Cristiano spent ages in discussion with Zidane at the side of the pitch. And celebrations on the bench were curtailed as well.
Real Madrid had gone to the Mestalla to win. Purely and simply. But there was an undercurrent to this victory, one that hadn’t been seen in public until then. Finally, the whole situation was summed up by Luka Modrić in one sentence. “It’s madness to criticise the coach in this way”.
The players weren’t immune to all the talk and all the comments about how if results continued to go against them then changes would be made. So they reacted in their own way.
Pushed to the edge by the criticism and the rumours and the gossip and the predictions that changes were on the cards, this was a team playing for Zinedine Zidane.
There was almost a sign of finality about Karim Benzema’s action in the dug-out when he threw the jacket to the ground. Despite being angry at being subbed, it was more in frustration that he wasn’t on the field anymore to help matters.
If Real didn’t win, then the coach would be leaving in the morning anyway. But that was before the game; and everyone involved had other ideas.
It’s rare in today’s football for a complete squad to be so committed to the coach.
There’s usually one of two with vested interests who will blow with the wind; but of the current team everyone appears united behind the man who has guided Real Madrid to so much success since taking over two years ago.
One thing in his favour is that Zidane has the support of the president. Florentino Pérez has a different relationship with Zidane to that of previous coaches and that’s reflected in dealings off the field.
Who else but Zidane could say in public that he didn’t want another goalkeeper despite all the indications that Kepa was already on his way to Madrid from Bilbao? And what other president would stand for that!
The mutual respect is obvious; between president and coach and between coach and players.
Zinedine Zidane has shown an awful lot of loyalty to this particular group of players; and on Saturday the players of Real Madrid stood firmly behind their coach; unanimous against all attempts to dislodge him.
As Sergio Ramos once said, “if you boo one of us then you boo us all”. Now even those who’ve been calling for Zidane to go are saying that the criticism has gone too far.