James Lawton: Zidane's real chance to secure changing of the guard
Published 02/12/2016 | 02:30
Muhammad Ali used to identify the centre of the world as his next boxing ring. Heaven knows, he had a case but then who would complain if Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo made the same claim for the Nou Camp before tomorrow's El Clasico?
For some time, of course, it has been the world's most important football match. It transcends the old demarcation lines of national boundaries so profoundly it might be happening on a planet of its own. Yet always there is a new twist to the story, a fresh possibility to keep the contest thoroughly earth-bound. Tomorrow it is, maybe, the breaking of Barcelona - and the coronation of Real Madrid's increasingly authoritative coach Zinedine Zidane.
Victory would give Real Madrid a nine-point lead and a stranglehold on the La Liga race won six times out of the last eight, including the last two, by Barcelona. It would make Zidane's progress as a still first-year head coach something iridescent enough to compare with his most spectacular days as the world's best player, the World Cup and Champions League winner whose only perceptible flaw was to defend the honour of his sister by headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin.
That buying of a three-card trick cost the virtuoso, who grew up in a high-rise block of flats in a North African immigrant section of Marseilles, a stunning World Cup double after his triumph against Brazil in the Stade de France in 1998. But if it left a broken place, tomorrow might be the day when the healing is seen to be just about complete.
This week his son Enzo scored on his first appearance in the Real first team, a Spanish Cup victory which carries Zidane's team to within just two games of the club's record unbeaten mark of 34. However, it is the prospect of successfully invading the Nou Camp that makes the strongest case for a family banquet.
At the start of the year Zidane inherited a Real dressing room deeply disaffected by the schoolmasterly approach of Rafa Benitez. Re-animated, re-programmed and deeply inspired, Real won the Champions League and confirmed the quality of the advice offered to Zidane by his former Bernabeu boss Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian, also a serial winner as player and coach, said Zidane should remain as his assistant rather than take the coach's job at Bordeaux. Ancelotti's logic was simple enough. Zidane had made a huge impact in Madrid and his growing grasp of the coaching challenge made his ascension to one of football's biggest jobs inevitable.
Ancelotti says: "Zidane is very charismatic and is respected by the players. I saw that when he was my assistant and that is the key to his success now. The players had problems with Rafa Benitez and when Zidane came in everything changed. The players rallied around him."
It has no doubt helped that Zidane took over the first team with a set of values which he insisted would never be compromised, saying: "My new players have much greater experience than the ones in the Castella (reserve) team and so our relationship will be different. But the message will be the same. We need to play with intensity and focus at all times. The most important challenge is to have a good relationship with your players. I do not talk to the press a lot but that is not so important. Fundamental is the day-to-day working with the players and getting over the message that we always have to win."
His emphasis on possession - and a much quicker prosecution of it than the tika-taka legacy of Barca that will be challenged so strenuously at the Nou Camp tomorrow afternoon - is the nearest thing to a dogma he has yet espoused.
"I've worked with Mourinho and Ancelotti and I also visited Guardiola," he says. "I learned a lot from all of them but I must implement my own style now. I believe in getting hold of the ball and attacking fast."
As a player he produced a supreme example of such virtues in the 2002 Champions League final at Hampden Park, when his thunderous volley carried Real to victory over Bayer Leverkusen. Such a dynamic intervention, perhaps from Ronaldo, could well usher in a new era of both El Clasico and the European game.
However, if Zidane's opposite number Luis Enrique is desperate to shake away the Barca impasse - two straight draws - he is no doubt hugely heartened by the return from injury of Andres Iniesta.
Without the Little Man of La Mancha, Barca have struggled to find their old inexorable rhythm, with one notable victim being the once dominant Sergio Busquets. Recently, he has had the demeanour of someone heading for the lost property desk. The craft of Iniesta, may have been the missing item and its return might well trigger the old awareness of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar that they are supposed to be, by some distance, the most devastating strike force the modern game has ever seen.
Enrique says: "People are saying we have lost our style of play, that it is over, but when a few things go wrong you always get comments like this. It is the time of the season and the fact is that we have time to put things right. Do I still believe in my team? When I look at their record, and their ability, of course I do."
It is the kind of thing a coach is required to say on the eve of El Clasico. The centre of the world is, after all, hardly ideal as a hiding place.