Judgement day for Real Madrid as Zidane’s second innings begins

Now it begins again, the season, and Zidane's second era as coach. (Reuters)
Updated 14 August 2019

Judgement day for Real Madrid as Zidane’s second innings begins

  • Things will change, for sure, says Zidane after he won five of his last 11 games at the end of last season

MADRID: Zinedine Zidane returned to save Real Madrid and the time has come for results.

In a packed-out press conference under the Santiago Bernabeu in March, the club's president Florentino Perez delivered the grandest of re-introductions.

“We need to start working on a glorious new era,” said Perez. “That is why we welcome back Zinedine Zidane.”

Some might have expected a bounce but nobody blamed the coach when performances continued to drag and the gap behind Barcelona, rather than narrowing, widened.

Zidane took over a team with nothing to play for and a squad he knew was in need of reform. He knew because he had left it nine months earlier, just before it was broken.

There was no quick fix. In his 11 games at the end of last season, Madrid won five, the only promise of progress the words Zidane kept repeating. “Things will change, for sure,” he said.

Zidane denied it but they were seen as trials, every lineup scanned for clues as to who would survive the summer.

Yet in some ways, none of it mattered and the results, not to mention attendances at the Santiago Bernabeu, said as much. “The best thing for us is that it’s over,” said Zidane, after the season ended in defeat.

And now it begins again, the season, and Zidane’s second era as coach.

Many wondered why he came back, risking everything after the perfection of three Champions League titles out of three.

The assumption was he returned to a stronger hand, able to make demands the club were ready to meet and with the backing to rebuild in the way he had always wanted.

He might have been encouraged too, when Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic, Rodrygo and Eden Hazard all signed for a total close to €300 million.

Hazard was the headline act, a throwback to a previous era that Zidane knew well, when the world's most glamorous players seemed to walk through the doors every year.

“I’m not a galactico, not yet, but I hope I will be one day,” said Hazard when he joined.

But Madrid’s pockets are not as deep as they once were and sales were also needed, by the club and their coach.

Zidane showed no inclination to make soothe and use Gareth Bale, instead urging the Welshman to make a move to China.

“It is very close,” Zidane said. “We hope he leaves soon, it would be best for everyone.”

Bale’s agent told AFP Zidane was a “disgrace” and if the Frenchman had hoped to push the deal over the line, he would be disappointed as Madrid changed their mind over the fee.

James Rodriguez is also yet to leave and there were others that proved more difficult to bring in such as Paul Pogba and even Neymar.

In other areas, Zidane has resisted change, backing experience over youth even if many believed experience last season had turned into apathy.

Marcelo, Casemiro and Keylor Navas have stayed while Marcos Llorente was allowed to join Atletico Madrid and Sergio Reguilon and Dani Ceballos were both sent out on loan.

For all the talk of upheaval, Madrid’s lineup against Celta Vigo on Saturday is likely to have a distinctly familiar feel.

Yet there could be a new formation, with a 3-5-2 tried after some underwhelming showings in pre-season, allowing Marcelo and Dani Carvajal greater freedom as wingbacks and Hazard to play centrally behind Karim Benzema.

And a shift in focus. Madrid have won La Liga only once in the last seven years, their failures in Spain excused only by unprecedented success in Europe.

“For us next year, the league must be our No. 1 priority,” Zidane said in April.

In that sense, Madrid might profit if Barcelona aim their focus at the Champions League. But the Catalans and Atletico Madrid have both strengthened and look ready to challenge again.

“La Liga is the longest competition, it's the one that cannot be missed,” Zidane said. “I'm going to drill that in the heads of my players.” His players. Now they have to deliver.


Saudi Arabia’s showjumping star eyes path to Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Updated 19 August 2019

Saudi Arabia’s showjumping star eyes path to Tokyo 2020 Olympics

  • Dalma Malhas ‘honored’ to be part of national team
  • Equestrian star began riding aged four

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s showjumping star Dalma Malhas is counting down to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by competing in a series of crucial qualifying events.

Malhas, who has been riding since the age of four, told Arab News that she was honored to be part of the Saudi national team after “years of work and dedication.”

Next month she and her fellow showjumpers head to Morocco to take part in a series of qualifying events.

The 10th edition of the Morocco Royal Tour takes place in three cities — Tetouan, Rabat, and Eljadida —  on three consecutive weekends. The top two teams, based on their results, will qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Malhas wants to be at the prestigious sporting event in Japan. 

“The work that has been done in the past few years will manifest itself now and I’m enjoying what I’ve been working on ... I believe in destiny and hard work,” she told Arab News. “Anything could happen, but I’m hopeful and trying to focus on peak performance because it is important that, when it comes to the horse and myself, we want to be there, energetic and motivated.”

She was the first female athlete from the Kingdom to compete at an Olympic-level event, riding at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 in Singapore and winning a bronze medal. She participated in the 14-18 age group, becoming only the third Saudi athlete to snag an Olympic medal.

She said it was easy to buy a horse that was already trained and compete with it. But the challenge for her was to get an inexperienced horse and train him from scratch.

“I dedicated time, effort and energy. I had a vision of how he could be and transformed him into a skilled and talented horse, and step-by-step I followed that. You build a strong partnership when you go through that process. It’s an affinity you can’t really buy. This is a very big part of horsemanship and one of my biggest achievements since the Youth Olympic Games. It’s priceless, having a combination and partnership like this.”

Malhas was born in 1992 in the US. Her mother, Arwa Mutabagani, is a prominent equestrian and has been a board member at the Saudi Equestrian Federation since 2008. She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.

Malhas has had a thoroughly international upbringing. At 12 she moved with her mother from Saudi Arabia to Rome to train with her under Italy’s former showjumping national coach, Duccio Bartalucci, spending a decade under his tutelage.

After studying and training in Italy she joined a two-year professional program at the Forsan Equestrian Center in Chantilly, France. She has been training with Olympic champion Roger Yves Bost since 2016. 

She started 2019 by participating in several tournaments, crisscrossing Europe and gradually moving up the leaderboard. 

She has won several awards to date, including Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Creative Sports Award, and can be regarded as a pioneer and role model.

Malhas said there were great opportunities for Saudi women in the fields of sports and equestrianism. She talked about the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan and how it empowered women. She also saw an opportunity to become more involved. 

“I want to give back too. I’ve been mostly focused on showjumping and training, so hopefully I’ll start giving back and contribute to society and motivate my peers in the country. I don’t mind though I’ve been enjoying the ride and after years of work I’m finally being rewarded in the best way possible.”