In the end, it was 0- 0 at Anfield but more than just a victory for Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane once again excelled in terms of preparation and delivery as he calmly steered his team past Liverpool on Wednesday night and into the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Having remarked earlier in the week that his Real Madrid squad were at their limit physically, this was a triumph for Zidane that emphasised not only his approach to an overloaded fixture list but also his indifference to criticism from all and sundry.
His single-mindedness shone through in every press conference and media interaction and he certainly wasn’t drawn by any of the comments or events that surrounded this tie.
Liverpool certainly didn’t lay down the red carpet for the game, but as always Zidane rose above it. His calm and assured presence in the technical area was a major contributing factor towards Real seeing off yet another challenge to progress further in the tournament.
The other significant contribution was from Zidane’s fitness staff. As we mentioned after the Barça game, the weather conditions in Madrid on Saturday night meant that the Clásico would inevitably be a test of players’ fitness, and so it proved.
The weather on Merseyside on Wednesday was nothing like that in the Barça game but the match at Anfield was more physical all round.
Accordingly, the effects of the knocks and bruises sustained carried over into the preparations for Real’s next two games, starting with away games at Getafe on Sunday and then Cádiz the following Wednesday (21st).
Factoring the European games into the training plan is something that Real’s fitness team, headed by Grégory Dupont, will be used to by now.
It’s a credit to Zidane’s fitness team, who are often highly criticised, that the players have come through the last few games in the way they have.
We have frequently discussed the challenges that Zidane faces in managing the training load for the domestic fixtures and European ties, and when it comes down to planning there’s never an international game or two far away.
The task of arranging the schedule for the season, in advance, falls to Grégory Dupont et al., under the supervision of Zinedine Zidane. Zidane favours a high-intensity approach designed to push players to their limits and this was reflected in the individual fitness programmes drawn up by Grégory Dupont during the first lock-down in 2020.
At the start of the season, the fitness team will sit down and plan with the fixture lists in place, having calculated when the European, domestic, and Copa del Rey games are likely to be in addition to identifying the international weeks.
It usually means that Real will be left with two sets of players, those who are regularly away with their national teams, and those who are not involved at the international level. Added to this are the players who are injured and therefore unable to participate in the international scene.
Managing the injuries that inevitably arise from such a schedule is the part that cannot be legislated for at the planning stage. The fitness team know that injuries will be sustained as the season progresses, but it’s impossible to predict who is likely to be affected.
Of course, with the way this year has been in terms of no proper pre-season preparation, re-arranged fixtures and continued involvement in the Champions League, such a playing schedule has inevitably taken its toll on the players, with Ferland Mendy the latest casualty.
Real have cited muscular overload of the soleus muscle as the main reason why Ferland won’t be involved for the next couple of games and his recovery will be assessed daily by the medical team.
Given how bruising the Liverpool game turned out, it was surprising that he was the only player who picked up an injury serious enough to miss the Getafe game. Others took knocks at Anfield and managed to play on.
In particular, Karim Benzema was the target of many a hefty challenge, particularly during the opening stages, and at one point it looked as though Casemiro was struggling after yet another heavy tackle.
But these two are made of sterner stuff and like Sergio Ramos (who didn’t play in either of the two legs or the Clásico due to an injury sustained on international duty) it’s no wonder that this trio forms the backbone of Zidane’s current Real Madrid side.