Does Zidane have the X factor Real Madrid need?
Happy homecomings for Zinedine Zidane. The new head coach of Real Madrid, the young, 43-year-old charged with a tricky mid-season takeover of a notoriously demanding job enjoyed a smooth, swaggering introduction to the technical area of a stadium he once graced as a footballer. Conclusions about Zidane's managerial nous cannot be instant, given he is just 90 minutes into his first ever gig as a senior coach of a top-division team, but on the evidence of Madrid's 5-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna, ZZ certainly has an X factor.
The Madrid crowd shouted that out from the moment his name was read out at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, encouraged to put aside thoughts of the gamble being taken on an inexperienced new guide and stir themselves with recollections of the leadership and imagination Zidane gave to the club in the white number 5 jersey he wore as probably the world's most creative midfielder between 2001 and 2006. The giant scoreboard played clips of his great goals, his pirouettes and his shimmies and his ballet-like turns before kick-off.
The manager who emerged from the tunnel, as late as he could, apparently shy of the dedicated applause, wore a smart blue suit and less hair than he had a player in his late 20s and early 30s. He was on his feet for much of the first half, but more sedate in the second, when his players had secured a comfortable outcome from his first match in charge. Madrid needed to win, for Zidane's momentum, and for the target he aims at, which is to push Barcelona, who won 4-0 against Granada, Lionel Messi scoring a hat-trick, earlier in the day, as well as Atletico Madrid, who Sunday retook the summit of La Liga with a win over Celta Vigo. Zidane's club sit third, two points behind Barcelona, four beneath Atletico.
Zidane's appointment has changed the mood music at Madrid. That was foreseeable. His predecessor, Rafa Benitez, sacked last week, had endured two months of jeering and whistling from a large proportion of madridistas at home matches. Zidane represents something distinct: no Madrid fan has ever purchased a replica jersey with the name Benitez, who did not have a significant professional career as a player, above a number five on its back. These shirts were being sold at a good rate at the club's outlets ahead of Zidane, who wore number five as a Madrid player, making his debut as first-team coach.
Madrid scored their first goal under his watch after 14 minutes. Its scorer was the player he is probably closest to, his compatriot Frenchman, Karim Benzema. Benzema has had some ups and downs with various Madrid coaches in his five and half years at the club. He was a young man of 21 when he arrived in Madrid, somewhat in the shadow of Ronaldo and Kaka, the summer of 2009's other newcomers, and somewhat in the slipstream of Ronaldo, Raul and Gonzalo Higuain in the pecking order under Manuel Pellegrini. Jose Mourinho, next coach in, made a very public point of preferring Higuain to Benzema -- the former was a 'hunting dog', the latter a 'pussycat', once he said.
Zidane, employed in various capacities at Madrid since 2009, worked one-on-one with Benzema during Mourinho's tenure. There would be more concentrated contact once Zidane became the full-time assistant to Carlo Ancelotti, by which time Benzema was in his-mid-20s, a matured, more sophisticated centre-forward, with a greater appreciation of how to complement the players around him, notably Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Within the club, Zidane is credited with boosting Benzema's confidence and adding to his skills-set.
You might even call his goal in the first-half against Deportivo 'Zidanesque', in that there was an impudence, a quick-wittedness about the way Benzema instinctively back-heeled Sergio Ramos's volley past German Lux, the Depor goalkeeper. True, Bale looked in an offside position at that moment, but the goal stood and Deportivo could barely argue about Madrid's superiority once Bale, heading in a superb Dani Carvajal cross, made it 2-0.
Madrid had played with verve, and some pleasing combinations, not least those between Ronaldo and Bale, whose cross invited Ronaldo to head at goal, denied by Lux's post. Ronaldo returned the favor, with a low centre for Bale to smoothly side-foot Madrid's third. Bale met Toni Kroos's corner for his hat-trick, Benzema then scoring Madrid's fifth goal, Ronaldo involved in that move too.
With a little luck Ronaldo might have scored two or three himself, rather than none, but he seemed happy with the change of coach at Madrid. Ronaldo's mood may well descend on Monday when he goes to Zurich for the awarding of the Ballon d'Or, the FIFA World Footballer of the Year. He holds the prize from 2014, but is likely, not for the first time, to have to give it up for a year at least, to Barcelona's Messi.