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Champions League

Is Zinedine Zidane the real deal?

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Renowned globally as one of the greatest footballers of all-time, Zinedine Zidane has seamlessly continued his success into management by taking one of the most high-pressure jobs in the sport and making it look easy.

When Los Blancos finally secured La Decima after extra-time in 2014, the Frenchman was present only as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, his eyes firmly set on becoming top-dog. Many spectators believed that Zidane’s time had come a year later when the Italian was removed as manager – a decision which highlighted the exceptionally high demands of the job.

Yet, to the surprise of ‘Zizou’s’ supporters, Madrid began the 2015/16 season with Rafael Benitez at the helm. Zidane was to remain at the side’s B-team, Real Madrid Castilla, providing an opportunity to gain further experience. Doubts had also been cast over his managerial ability, after finishing just sixth with the side in his first campaign.

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Despite the setback, Zidane would finish the season by securing the Spanish giants their 11th European title, having replaced Benitez in January and successfully navigating his side through the Champions League knockout stages. The final itself was another tight contest with their city rivals Atletico, who Ancelotti had defeated two years earlier.

On this occasion, only penalties could separate the two, with Diego Simone falling at the last once more, whilst the heir to Real’s throne was truly crowned.

In the league that year Madrid had finished a point behind Barcelona in second – a respectable finish due to the European success. Yet, failure to win a title in his first full season would almost certainly cost the Frenchman his job.

A year on, Zidane has conquered both Spain and Europe, seizing the La Liga title away from Camp Nou and becoming the first manager (and first club) to retain the Champions League – the first side to win successive European Championships (excluding UEFA Cup/Europa League) in 27 years.

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As was often the case with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, there will always be critics who attempt to devalue great achievements, claiming that anyone could lead these sides to success.

Such comments are, of course, meaningless. It is, however, interesting to assess the state of a club prior to the reign of any successful manager. At Barcelona, Guardiola took on a side who had come third the previous season and had gone two years without lifting a major trophy. After a single campaign, the Catalans were treble winners, widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest club sides of all time.

In Madrid, Zidane inherited a club who had gone just one year without European success, yet now they have lifted the Champions League in three of the last four years, failing to do so only when Zizou was out of the first-team set-up.

In Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid boast the Champions League’s top scorer from each of the last five years. The forward was talismanic yet again, whilst scoring twice in this season’s final, adding to the hat-tricks netted in the two previous rounds.

However, Real are much more than a one-man show. Since replacing Benitez as manager, Zidane has made few changes to the squad, a sure sign of the quality he inherited. Yet this team still had something missing. Where his predecessor struggled to get the best of a vastly talented line-up, the current incumbent had excelled in making big calls, whilst seemingly sustaining harmony.

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Take the final as an example. Much discussion pre-match focused on whether the Frenchman would prefer Isco or Gareth Bale in the starting XI. This was heightened in the British media due to the connection with the Welsh winger, and the romantic idea of the 27-year-old lifting club football’s’ most prestigious trophy in his hometown.

Zidane proved capable of making the right call from a tactical perspective, as Isco proved pivotal whilst on the pitch. He was vindicated further by choosing to start Daniel Carvajal. The full-back had missed the previous month through injury but was key to suppressing Juventus in the second half. Most importantly, these decisions were made without damaging squad morale ahead of the season’s biggest game; no player appeared disgruntled on the bench or when substituted.

Crucially, Madrid’s Galactico manager used half-time to completely overturn his side’s fortunes. The first 45 minutes had been tight but Juventus looked the better team. Aside from some deflective good fortune to take the lead after an hour, Los Blancos deserved everything they got.

Juventus are widely, and rightfully, regarded as the best defensive outfit in Europe – they’re not exactly weak in attack either. Yet in the second half, Madrid nullified them completely. Paulo Dybala, who is influential so often, and Miralem Pjanic, a constant threat in the first period, were denied any opportunity on the ball, as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos resumed normal service by dominating the middle third.

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Aided by his side’s comfortable lead, Zidane was able to give Bale, Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata a chance in the final – three more of the club’s key players rewarded for their efforts over the season.

Morata has been heavily linked with a move away, with the Telegraph suggesting Manchester United have prioritised the forward, who finished the season behind only Ronaldo in Madrid’s scoring charts. Asensio has broken into the first team this season, featuring regularly and could have a bright future at the Santiago Bernabeu. Bale remains the club’s record signing and has stated his intention to stay put, despite yearly reports in Britain claiming that United are chasing the Welshman.

Interestingly, there was no place in the final match day squad for James Rodriguez, as Zidane has increasingly used him as a rotation option. Still, the 25-year-old cost the club over £60 million, leaving a player of that stature out of such a game is a big call, once which the Frenchman is clearly comfortable to make.

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Decisions of that nature are part of the package of managing a club like Madrid, yet Zidane’s consistent ability to select the right team, who score in every match (60 this season) and are tough to beat (Madrid set a new Spanish unbeaten record this campaign) mean that his choices can not and will not be questioned.

Florentino Perez, Madrid’s esteemed club president, has claimed on Spanish radio (as per Sky Sports and The Independent) that Zidane can stay at the club for the rest of his life. The manager certainly won’t take anything for granted, but has so far done little wrong and looks set to replicate his achievements as a player on the sidelines.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by Nargis John

Joe is a suffering Blackpool fan. Having banned himself from matches in protest at England's worst club owners; he now watches any other game, often writing about them here for The Boot Room.

Champions League

Are Tottenham Hotspur potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Of the five Premier League clubs that have progress to the last 16 of the Champions League,  Tottenham Hotspur are the surprise package.

Their lacklustre domestic form, coupled with a devilishly difficult group that featured European heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, meant few expected Spurs to be in the draw for the knockout stages.

But Mauricio Pochettino’s charges, playing their home matches at Wembley Stadium while they await the completion of their brand-new stadium at White Hart Lane, exceeded all expectations.

Their reward is a daunting two-legged tie with last season’s runners-up, Italian powerhouse Juventus. Here, The Boot Room assesses Tottenham’s chances of lifting the trophy.

Performances so far

When the groups were announced, the odds were stacked massively against Spurs finishing in the top two.

Although Cypriot outfit Apoel Nicosia appeared on paper to be favourable opposition, the presence of two clubs with an enviable Champions League pedigree, in Real and Dortmund, looked to be too big a challenge to overcome.

So for Tottenham to remain unbeaten and qualify as group winners was a huge fillip for Pochettino. The victory at home to Real on a magical night at Wembley will live long in the memory, as will the hard-earned point they earned in the corresponding fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu.

That was the only match in which they dropped points, having completed noteworthy doubles over Dortmund and Apoel.

Squad strength

Although Tottenham finished second in the Premier League last season, questions continue to be asked about their strength in depth.

In Harry Kane, the north London club boast arguably the most in-form striker in world football, while the likes of Dele Alli, Cristian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are regularly rated among the elite footballers in Europe.

Beyond that, however, Spurs have some issues.

Despite signing Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente last summer in an effort to bolster his resources, the suspicion remains that Pochettino is over-reliant on a few individuals – especially Kane. If he were to get injured for a prolonged period, then Tottenham’s goal scoring potency and their effectiveness would be severely diminished.

Manager

Pochettino has been a revelation since swapping the Southampton hot-seat for Tottenham’s in 2014, taking the club to the next level.

The Champions League was not new territory for Spurs, who had qualified for a single season under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship, but the Argentinian manager has made their presence in the competition commonplace.

One criticism often aimed at Pochettino is that, for all his good work in transforming Spurs into a genuine force to rival the very best in the Premier League, he is yet to win any silverware.

He twice lifted the Copa del Rey with Espanyol, but his time in England has so far proved fruitless. With such a talented squad at his disposal, it is high time he saw tangible reward.

Chances of winning

Despite their magnificent effort to top Group H, Spurs are one of the outsiders to win the Champions League this season.

Their potential path to the final has already been complicated after being drawn against Juventus in the last 16. However, should they achieve the not-so-small matter of knocking out last year’s finalists, who would bet against them going all the way?

Domestically, Tottenham have struggled to reproduce last season’s form and have dropped far too many points, particularly at home. But this has been in stark contrast to their performances in Europe.

They can take great heart from their displays against Real and Dortmund and should believe they belong at this rarefied level. And with a striker as prolific as Kane in their team, anything can happen.

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Champions League

Are Manchester City potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

With a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the table, Manchester City are all but guaranteed to be crowned this season’s Premier League champions. However, manager Pep Guardiola, not to mention the club’s fiercely ambitious owners, will have an even greater prize on their minds.

The Cityzens have never won the Champions League, but such has been their form in all competitions that they must surely be in contention to lift the most coveted trophy in European football. Here, The Boot Room analyses Manchester City’s prospects of becoming the first English club to win the Champions League since 2012.

Performances so far

Mirroring their fortunes in the Premier League, Manchester City dominated the first stage of the Champions League, qualifying for the last 16 with ease as Group F winners.

Drawn with Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk, City won their first five fixtures – scoring 13 goals in the process – before an unexpected defeat with a weakened team to the Ukrainian outfit ended their 100 per cent record and removed some of the gloss.

The two wins over Italian giants Napoli – 2-1 at the Etihad and 4-2 away – were particularly impressive given their form in Serie A. Paired against Swiss side Basel in the last 16 – the round at which they bowed out of the competition last year – City are very highly fancied to book their spot in the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Guardiola has assembled one of the strongest squads in European football; one to rival the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since last season, the Spaniard has focused on strengthening his defence. Out went Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, who were all deemed surplus to requirements, while in came upgrades Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson has been a revelation since arriving from Benfica and shored up a back line that had been their Achilles heel.

Another summer arrival, Bernardo Silva, has been used more sparingly but provides depth in central midfield. City also boast in their ranks arguably the best player in Europe this season, Kevin de Bruyne, who has been a tour de force in central midfield alongside the guile and subtlety of David Silva.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, currently sidelined through injury, provide genuine potency in front of goal.

Manager

Although the investment has been substantial, Guardiola must take credit for improving his young stars. The rise of Raheem Sterling is a pertinent example. The England star flattered to deceive last season but has been rejuvenated, scoring for fun and providing real creativity in City’s all-conquering side.

As a player, Guardiola never experienced Champions League glory with Barcelona but he twice guided them to the trophy as manager, in 2009 and 2011. He could not repeat the feat at Bayern Munich, although he did capture the Bundesliga title on three successive occasions.

Now in his second season in Manchester, the 46-year-old is yet to win silverware. However, given City’s current position as runaway Premier League leaders, that is sure to change – perhaps in spectacular fashion.

Chances of winning

It’s no surprise City are rated favourites by bookmakers to lift the prestigious cup later this year. One only needs to look at their record this season to see they are the form team in Europe. In a division as competitive as the Premier League, their 19-match winning sequence was an extraordinary feat.

With a favourable last-16 tie, City will believe they can progress to the last eight and beyond. Football is an unpredictable game, but nobody would be shocked to see them walking out in the showpiece final in four months’ time. And with Guardiola at the helm, they have the ideal manager to mastermind the club’s maiden European title.

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Champions League

Are Chelsea potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Antonio Conte will be looking to emulate his Italian counterpart Roberto di Matteo, by leading Chelsea to Champions League glory this season. The Blues’ champagne moment six years ago was the realisation of a dream Roman Abramovich had held since he gained ownership of the club in 2003.

Chelsea are the reigning Premier League champions, having claimed the title in Conte’s first campaign in charge. But the former Italy boss’s honeymoon period is now over, amid a run of mixed results and speculation of player unrest. Here, The Boot Room assesses Chelsea’s prospects of lifting the Champions League for a second time.

Performances so far

The Blues were in the same group as both Atletico Madrid and Roma – as well as minnows Qarabag – and they finished level on points with the Italian club at the top of the standings. The highlight was a 2-1 victory away to Atletico, courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from Michy Batshuayi. A routine double was completed over Qarabag, but it was their results against Roma that shaped the final standings.

Even though both clubs ended on 11 points to qualify for the last 16 and Chelsea had a vastly superior goal difference, the Blues could only follow up their 3-0 defeat in the Italian capital with a 3-3 draw at home. This proved costly, with Conte’s side finishing second and being drawn against Barcelona, which has significantly dented their chances of making it into the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Chelsea captured the Premier League at a canter last season, thanks largely to the goals of Diego Costa and the brilliance of Eden Hazard. Despite the summer arrival of Alvaro Morata, Costa’s departure has been a big loss. Surprisingly, Nemanja Matic was permitted to join Manchester United, while David Luiz has fallen out of favour under Conte.

Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko have added depth to the squad, while the rise to prominence of Andreas Christensen has been an unexpected bonus. Ross Barkley is the first of their signings in the January window and perhaps more will follow. Most important is proper competition for the misfiring Morata, with Chelsea currently lacking a cutting edge in tight games.

Manager

A three-time winner of Serie A with Juventus (to go alongside last season’s Premier League crown), Conte is without doubt a manager of immense repute. After Jose Mourinho’s reign had turned sour, the 48-year-old was the perfect successor. He revitalised Chelsea and turned them into champions after adopting a 3-4-3 formation that proved to be a masterstroke.

Conte has a unique style of management. His demonstrable shows of passion are loved by supporters, but his intensity has sparked rumours that he is not universally liked by his players. Costa fell foul of his wrath last summer, while Brazilian centre-back Luiz is the latest to be marginalised. Conte’s public clashes with his superiors over failed transfer targets have increased the tension.

Chances of winning

When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they had to beat Barcelona over two legs in the semi-finals. If they want to lift the prestigious trophy again this year, it’s a feat they will need to repeat. Although the Blues are more than capable of competing with the very best in Europe, they would much rather have avoided opponents of Barcelona’s class at this stage.

Chelsea only have themselves to blame for not topping Group C, which would likely have given them a smoother passage to the last eight. Barcelona, the runaway La Liga leaders, are by no means unbeatable, but they will be the favourites to progress and Chelsea will need to be at their very best over both games to stop them.

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