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Rafael Benitez, James Rodriguez and Zinedine Zidane - An unfair uprising that propelled Real Madrid to familiar glory

  • Zidane has assembled one of the best squads in the game - but his appointment was not without significant consequences.
Sai Teja
Modified 08 Jun 2017, 20:27 IST
Real Madrid became the first team in Champions League history to win back-to-back crowns

November 21st, 2015. Rafael Benitez was in the dugout at the Santiago Bernabeu, for his first ever El Clasico in charge of Real Madrid. They were three points behind leaders Barcelona and the Madrid-born manager named a strong line up in order to reduce that deficit.

This line up saw all their star names feature, with a midfield of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez and the famed trio consisting of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema in attack. They were the favourites going into the battle, particularly with Barca’s talismanic Argentine Lionel Messi watching on from the bench due to a lack of match fitness after returning from injury.

Sergi Roberto took his place on the team and constantly interchanged with Andres Iniesta during the course of the match. The Spanish captain was the mastermind, pulling all the strings in a devastating 4-0 win for the Catalans, overcoming a Real side who were unbeaten in 23 league matches at home until then.

The absence of their star man seemed uncannily irrelevant as they romped home to a stunning victory. It was a strange performance from Los Blancos, considering that Luiz Suarez’s opener was the first goal they had conceded all season at home. That goal was the result of 24 passes that were strung together by Barcelona. This statistic highlighted the major problem that was prevalent during Benitez’s short and sour stint.

Real Madrid versus Benitez

Benitez did not have a great stint at Real Madrid

Until that point of the season, Casemiro was one of Benitez’s standout performers. The Brazilian helped screen a leaky defence and Madrid’s numbers in defensive terms were excellent. James and Bale both had minor injury issues and it was the Welshman who got an immediate entry into the team when fit while James was made to wait.

Away on international duty for Columbia, the playmaker fired shots at Benitez by saying, “People can keep on talking about how I'm not ready to play."

Naturally under pressure from the Madrid media and ultras, Benitez had to make a move to please them, at a very expensive price. With no Casemiro to help Kroos and Modric, Real had virtually no midfield, and Barcelona had a field day in the middle third of the pitch. 


Benitez couldn’t handle the pressure which presumably had a lot to do with Real’s hierarchy and the Galactico policy they live by. James came to the club as a marquee player and demanded playing time, even at the cost of leaving the UCL winners’ midfield as fragile as glass.

This was one of the major issues during Benitez’s unsuccessful spell in the hot seat - Florentino Perez’s influence on the team selection, handicapping his tactical approach and set-up. Casemiro was the only defensive midfielder at the club after Sami Khedira was shipped to Turin.

“That's not a team Rafa would pick,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. “Either the people above him have got involved or maybe he's bowed to media pressure or the players, I just don't know.”

"You look at the team and he's not gone in with a holding midfield player - Rafa would normally play two. I don't know if there's something where he's maybe getting pressure from the owner - 'we've bought these big stars and they need to play' - and he's said 'ok let's play them against Barcelona, that's what happens. You see the results'."

Enter Zinedine Zidane

Zidane has overseen a Madrid resurgence

The former Liverpool manager Benitez lost his job soon after and was replaced by Zinedine Zidane, who’s only managerial experience was with Real Madrid Castilla. Things didn’t start off very well either with Zidane losing his first Madrid Derby courtesy of a strike from Antoine Griezmann.

This was the turning point of Madrid’s season. What followed was a spectacular resurgence, on both domestic and European fronts. As for their domestic endeavours, they would eventually lose the title by one point to Barcelona, who they trailed by more than 12 points halfway through the season.

Translating this resurgence into numbers, they won 11 consecutive games after the derby loss, including a comeback at the Nou Camp, stunning the Spanish champions in their own backyard. They scored 37 goals, conceding just nine in the process.

Zidane’s transformation of a dull Madrid side took its time but their resurrection saw his men steal second place (losing the title by a point) and go on to conquer Europe by beating Atleti in the UCL final in Milan. And of course, a last-gasp Cristiano winner in the following El Clasico at the Nou Camp was the icing on the cake.

Also read: The calculated brilliance of Zinedine Zidane

Zidane’s second season surpassed all expectations as the Frenchman guided his Madrid side to their first title since the time of Mourinho, five years ago. They rampaged their way to Cardiff to face an outstanding Juventus side in the final of the UCL. Though it was a team effort, it was Ronaldo who stole the headlines with hat-tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the tournament, scoring a total of eight goals against them including the home and away ties.

Juventus had only conceded three goals in the Champions League on the road to the final – only one of which was scored (by Kylian Mbappe) from open play. Real blitzed the Italian champions by scoring four goals against them, all from open play. They became the first team in UCL history to retain their European crown.

Doing it the Zizou way – Zidane’s impact

Over time, Zidane’s men have added a very important aspect to their game – the desire to win. Now, this might sound silly considering Real have won more Champions Leagues than any team in history, but Zidane’s impact is huge. They were clinical under Carlo Ancelotti, and lacklustre under Rafa Benitez. But under Zidane, the entire squad looks fitter, sharper, and more committed on the pitch than in the last few seasons.

Their attitude and desire have made an evident difference this season – Real Madrid have scored in every game they have played in this season. Every. Single. Game. That is a total of 173 goals scored in 60 odd games. They either ran riot against the opposition (which was evident even against Europe’s elite) or ground out victories.

Season-defining decision – Casemiro

Real’s most important player?

This was personified by one decision that Zidane took – installing Casemiro at the base of Real Madrid’s midfield. Benitez tried to do the same, but couldn’t stick to his decision as his team selection was fairly influenced by the club’s hierarchy. Zidane, though, didn’t succumb to that pressure and stood firm.

It was a mystery how a team with Kroos and Modric in the engine room couldn’t play up to potential, and that is what the manager ultimately made happen – he largely relieved the two maestros of their defensive duties and turned Casemiro into their one-man-tank guarding Sergio Ramos & co.

Also read: Real Madrid Player Ratings for the 2016/17 season

Watching the German and Croat work in tandem is like watching two painters weaving their brushes to create masterpieces on one large canvas. They are undoubtedly two of the best midfielders in the world in terms of vision & creativity. The stability for this canvas though was provided by the tough-tackling Brazilian, who went on to become statistically one of the best defensive-minded midfielders in the world.

Casemiro’s gifts don’t really help him play a beautiful defense-splitting pass like Kroos or take on 3-4 defenders at once and beat them all like Modric – but he can sniff out any potential threats that go past the midfield and guard his defence.

His improved positioning and gifted tackling were utilised to a great extent by Zidane. Casemiro won 33 tackles in the UCL, more than any midfielder in the tournament.

The end of James Rodriguez at Madrid

James is set to exit the Bernabeu after struggling to secure a regular starting berth

On the other hand, Zidane has completely sidelined James Rodriguez, the man that Benitez was pressured to play at the expense of Casemiro. He is likely to be sold in the coming transfer window, and his exclusion from the matchday squad for the final at Cardiff is perhaps the most telling sign yet.

For all of the Columbian’s prowess, his move to Madrid seems like a mistake now considering he was tasked with displacing two of the finest midfielders on the planet from Real Madrid’s XI. As for Casemiro, drafting him into the team and emphasising his importance is the greatest move we’ve seen from Zidane at Real Madrid – which might only be the start of his era of dominance.

Real’s unfair treatment of Benitez seems to be of little consequence now, as this Real Madrid under Zidane are truly one of the best sides in the history of the game.

Published 08 Jun 2017, 16:28 IST
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