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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

Ranking Liverpool’s possible Champions League semi-final opponents

The draw for the semi-final stage takes place on Friday 13th April.

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Liverpool
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Liverpool shocked the footballing world with a 5-1 aggregate dismantling of Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals, earning themselves their first semifinal appearance in a decade.

The draw to determine who they will play in the last four occurs on Friday, and here are Liverpool’s possible opponents ranked in terms of difficulty.

1. Roma

Fresh off a superb 3-0 second leg win over Barcelona, the Serie A side are certainly high on confidence and feel as if they can beat any team in the world.

Nonetheless, the Reds will be hoping they are rewarded with a matchup against the Italian side, as they are the most inexperienced team left in the competition.

The farthest Roma have ever made it in the UEFA Champions League were back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2006/07 and 2007/08; the semifinals mark uncharted territory for the Italians in the modern era.

Roma are also in poor league form, having recently lost to Fiorentina and drawing with Bologna, and currently sit 21 points off the pace in Serie A.

Liverpool would love to play the only remaining Italian side in the semifinals, as it would pit them against an inexperienced European club.

(Photo by Christof Stache/Getty Images)

2. Bayern Munich

One of the world’s best clubs and boasting a superstar collection of top players, the Bundesliga champions are a team to fear.

They have cantered to their sixth-straight league title this spring, winning the title in customary fashion with over a month still to play.

But although it has been all smooth sailing at home, they have shown signs of imperfection in the Champions League. They failed to muster a goal in their second-leg 0-0 draw with Sevilla, and were also thrashed 3-0 by Paris Saint Germain in the group stage.

Although the Bavarian giants are still a force to be reckoned with, they have shown signs of cracking this year; a fact that Liverpool can take heart from.

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

3. Real Madrid

The back-to-back defending European champions would be the last club Liverpool want to face for a spot in the final.

Real Madrid possess the most dangerous player in Champions League history in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, gifting Los Blancos the ability to win a match out of nowhere.

Ronaldo’s uncanny scoring skills were on display in the quarterfinal battle against Juventus, where he scored three goals, including an outrageous overhead kick and a stoppage-time penalty to send Real through.

Madrid simply don’t get knocked out in Europe; the Reds should be praying they avoid the Spanish side in the semifinal draw.

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Champions League

Cristiano Ronaldo provides spectacular reminder that he remains a dominant force in world football

The Portugal captain scored a sensational goal in Real Madrid’s midweek victory over Juventus.

Martyn Cooke

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Cristiano Ronaldo
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Cristiano Ronaldo is no stranger to the spectacular.

The Portuguese superstar has been making headlines since he made his debut for Sporting Lisbon as a 17-year-old and he has since gone on to establish himself as one of, if not the, best player of his generation.

His record at both club and international level is remarkable, both in terms of scoring goals and winning titles, and there is little that the winger has not accomplished in a career that has spanned sixteen years and shows no sign of ending any time soon.

However, on Tuesday evening he produced a moment of magic that quite simply took the breath away.

Ronaldo had already put Real Madrid in control of their quarter-final tie in the Champions League against Juventus with an early close-range finish. It gave his side a vital away goal against Italy’s dominant club and also continued his own remarkable goalscoring record in the competition.

Then came one of the most spectacular goals in Champions League history.

Dani Carvajal clipped in a lofted cross into the Juventus eighteen-yard box and there seemed to be little danger as the ball floated towards the penalty spot.

Ronaldo dynamically leapt upwards, appearing to hang momentarily in the air, before producing a perfectly struck, acrobatic overhead kick. The ball flew beyond the astonished Gianluigi Buffon and into the far corner of the net.

(Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images)

Spectacular. Astonishing. Jaw-dropping. It feels that words and superlatives can do no justice to the moment of skill produced.

The normally loud and raucous Juventus Stadium was stunned into silence. Zinedine Zidane, no stranger to creating magic on a football pitch himself, simply put a hand to his head and turned towards the bench.

And then applause broke out from the Juventus supporters – a demonstration of respect for one of the best players in the world.

The goal may have been a joy to behold, the perfect combination of technique and athletic ability, but it was also a fierce reminder that Ronald remains one of the dominant forces in world football.

At 33 years of age some onlookers have suggested that the Portuguese superstar’s powers may be beginning to wain and that his best years are behind him.

This was simply further evidence that such speculation is unfounded.

Ronaldo’s statistics this season are remarkable.

He has scored 23 goals in his last 12 games for Real Madrid and 39 goals in 36 appearances this campaign.

He has scored 43 goals in total for club and country this season.

He has scored in every Champions League tie this campaign, 14 in total, and is the first player to score in all six group games and in 10 consecutive ties.

(Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Furthermore, he is Real Madrid’s all-time leading goal scorer (446) and the all-time leading goal scorer in Champions League history (119).

You would struggle to replicate those figures if you were playing on a computer game.

There is absolutely no sign the Ronaldo’s prowess is in decline and, if anything, he looks more prominent now than ever.

In addition to this, the common accusation that he fails to produce in the ‘big games’ has firmly been dispelled this season.

In the Champions League alone, he has scored against Tottenham Hotspur (both ties), Borussia Dortmund (both ties), Paris Saint Germain (both ties) and Juventus.

Ronaldo truly is a modern genius on the football pitch and his remarkable goal on Tuesday night was a reminder that the 33-year-old intends to remain at the pinnacle of the game for a long time to come.

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Champions League

Liverpool fans rave after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s superb defensive performance

The teenager marshalled Leroy Sane brilliantly throughout the match.

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Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool delivered the shock result of the Champions League season tonight, demolishing Manchester City 3-0 at Anfield.

Goals from Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Sadio Mane sealed the deal for the Reds in the opening half hour, but perhaps the most impressive part of the match was the exceptional performance of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The young fullback had been targeted by City as a possible weak link, given his shaky starts in other big matches this year. Just weeks ago against Manchester United, the 19-year-old was torn to shreds by Marcus Rashford, looking out of place and overwhelmed.

(Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

And Pep Guardiola set up to isolate the English youngster and attacked down his wing with purpose. Diagonal balls in the direction of Leroy Sane were a constant fixture of Manchester City’s play, but Alexander-Arnold stood firm, contributing to Liverpool’s vital clean sheet.

To keep a clean sheet in the quarterfinals of the Champions League is impressive on its own, but to do it against the champions-elect, the top-scorers in the Premier League, and without one of your first choice centre-backs, is sensational.

Alexander-Arnold was at the heart of the Reds’ valiant defensive performance, and observers on Twitter rightly applauded him for his efforts.

Fans also commented on Alexander-Arnold’s tender age, a factor that made his performance even the more impressive.

The ever-popular back pocket joke also circulated on the Twittersphere, many supporters couldn’t resist the classic banter when describing Alexander-Arnold’s domination of Sane.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, take a bow son.

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