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.


Woods ready for leap into unknown at fan-free major

Updated 06 August 2020

Woods ready for leap into unknown at fan-free major

  • Woods experienced new fan-less reality at the Memorial Tournament last month

SAN FRANCISCO: Tiger Woods is preparing for a journey into the unknown as he heads into this week's PGA Championship hunting for a 16th major championship against the surreal backdrop of a deserted course at TPC Harding Park.

Throughout his career, the 44-year-old former world No. 1 has become accustomed to roaring galleries following his every shot, providing a jolt of energy that Woods has fed off time and again.

Yet this week's PGA Championship in San Francisco will be different.

Restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 mean that the first major of 2020 will be a fan-free, muted affair.

Woods got an early taste of his changed environment on Tuesday during a media briefing. Where in the past a scrum of reporters would have attended, on Tuesday only a handful of journalists were present.

"Well, that's an unknown," Woods said when asked about how the absence of fans might affect his chances.

"I don't know if anyone in our generation has ever played without fans in a major championship. It's going to be very different.

"But it's still a major championship. It's still the best players in the world. We all understand that going into it, so there's going to be plenty of energy from the competitive side.

"But as far as the energy outside the ropes, that is an unknown. And hopefully I can put myself in a position where I can be in that position where I can feel what it feels like to have no fans and also coming down the stretch with a chance to win."

Woods' former caddie, New Zealander Steve Williams, is among those who believe that the lack of fans might prove to be a hindrance.

"With that element missing, for someone who hasn't played a lot of tournament golf this year, it'll be challenging for Tiger to find that spark he needs," Williams said this week.

Woods experienced new fan-less reality at the Memorial Tournament last month, at Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio. He finished tied for 40th.

"Those four days at Muirfield were a bit different," Woods said.

"It reminded me of sometimes on the weekend, you'd tee off Saturday morning and you'd just barely make the cut and you're first off and there's no one out there.

"But generally by the time you make the back nine, there's thousands of people out there on the golf course waiting for the leaders to tee off.”

"But that never happened. So that's the new world we live in. We just have to get used to it."

Woods, meanwhile, has one eye on this week's weather forecast in San Francisco, with the former world No. 1's lower back notoriously vulnerable to the cooler temperatures expected.

"When it's cooler like this, it's just making sure that my core stays warm, layering up properly," said Woods.

"I know I won't have the same range of motion as I would back home in Florida where it's 95 every day. That's just the way it is."

Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery to rescue his career, said he had spent most of his downtime during the pandemic practising at home.

"I feel good," he said. "Obviously I haven't played much competitively, but I've been playing a lot at home.

"Just trying to get my way back into this part of the season. This is what I've been gearing up for. We've got a lot of big events starting from here, so looking forward to it. This is going to be a fun test for all of us."