After enjoying extraordinary success in 2017, with an unprecedented haul of five trophies, Zinedine Zidane begins his third year in charge of Real Madrid with a trip to second-tier Numancia in the Copa del Rey on Thursday.
The match will mark the second anniversary of Zidane’s appointment as Madrid coach as the successor to the sacked Rafael Benitez.
The Frenchman has since gone on to win eight out of a possible 10 trophies from just 116 games in charge, a remarkable tally for someone who had never previously coached at the top level.
“Your appetite comes from eating. We are never tired of winning,” Zidane said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“Perhaps it does wear you down a bit. Certainly, when you are at such a high, the only way to go is down a bit before you can then climb back up again.”
After last season’s Champions League and La Liga double triumph, Real have already won three trophies this season.
They followed their victories in the European and Spanish Super Cups at the start of the campaign by winning the Club World Cup in December to make it a record five trophies for the year.
However, the year ended with a 3-0 home defeat to Barcelona in the clasico, a result that left them fourth in La Liga, 14 points behind their great rivals at the summit, albeit with a game in hand.
The Copa del Rey is the one trophy Real have not won under Zidane, and they will be eager to avoid a slip-up when they go to the bitterly cold northern town of Soria to face Numancia in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
It is the start of what will be a hectic month, as long as Real continue to progress in the Cup, before they host Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League in February.
“I will try to finish the season as well as possible because we still have a great chance of winning things again,” added Zidane, who is without Karim Benzema due to injury.
“That is what motivates me and the team. I am not looking beyond the next six months.”
Meanwhile, Zidane was guarded on suggestions that the club would make a move for the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga in this month’s transfer window.
“We have the possibility of signing players until January 31 so anything could happen.
“I am satisfied with my squad. I have built it myself, so I take responsibility for that.”
Holders Barcelona also play on Thursday, travelling to Celta Vigo, who eliminated Real last season in the quarter-finals. The return matches will be played next midweek.
Copa del Rey last 16, first leg fixtures this midweek
Formentera v Alaves, Lleida v Atletico Madrid (both 1800 GMT), Cadiz v Sevilla, Las Palmas v Valencia (both 2000 GMT)
Celta Vigo v Barcelona, Leganes v Villarreal (both 1800 GMT), Numancia v Real Madrid, Espanyol v Levante (both 2000 GMT)
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) January 3, 2018
Mbappe had reportedly been a target of Real after he helped fire Monaco to a first French league title in 17 years last season, but instead he joined Paris Saint-Germain in August on an initial loan deal that will become permanent for €180m next year.
“There were many rumours of a transfer, it’s true that we spoke, but I think that’s now in the past for me and for Real Madrid.
“I play for PSG now and I am going to defend these colours 100 percent,” he said in an interview published Wednesday in Spanish sports daily Marca.
Mbappe, who turned 19 last week, said he wanted to play for PSG because Paris is his hometown.
“It is like a child from Madrid has the opportunity to play in his team and goes somewhere else, another country. No, I wanted to play for PSG and I am happy for now with how things are going,” he added.
“I have time, and as I have said I want to play in the best team in the world and PSG has everything to achieve this. If this team grows with me, there is no reason to leave.”
Only in football, and perhaps only at Real Madrid, would question marks start to surround the future of Zinedine Zidane – the superstar playmaker turned superstar coach who has won just the five trophies in a calendar year. Ending a five-year wait for the La Liga title? Check. Becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles in the Champions League era? Tick.
Zidane has also thrown in the UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de Espana and Club World Cup for good measure. But with Barcelona having streaked 11 points clear of Real in La Liga before today’s El Clasico, and Tottenham beating Zidane’s men into second during the UCL group stages, recent history only counts for so much.
Real president Florentino Perez is capricious at the best of times and a feeling lingers that Zidane has been lucky enough to inherit an extremely talented group of players whose only need in a coach is for someone to respect. But Zidane hasn’t been collecting trinkets for other people’s hard work. He has played the flourishing Isco in a more advanced role, rescuing him from relative obscurity. Zidane has also given chances to Marco Asensio, whose ascension to stardom at Real must at least be partially attributed to his coach.
Real’s supremacy will nonetheless come under close examination in 2018. After Luis Enrique’s reign at Barca came to a deflating end by their standards, Ernesto Valverde has restored function to the Nou Camp – even if the finesse remains absent. Cristiano Ronaldo may have won his fifth Ballon d’Or but Lionel Messi’s star continues to shine just as bright.
Paris Saint-Germain rocked Barca – and the rest of football – to its core after landing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for a combined €400 million. Neymar left Catalonia to become the main man in Paris but success in the Champions League is the only yardstick from which he will be judged, no matter how many goals he scores in Ligue 1.
Earlier this year Monaco were the success story in France, cultivating prospects such as Mbappe and besting PSG both domestically and in Europe. But shorn of many of their best talents after summer sales, their time near the top was all too brief.
In England, Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the second-ever highest points tally in the Premier League (93) and the equal amount of consecutive wins (13). Unfortunately for them, Pep Guardiola has ended the year by stealing their thunder. Guardiola’s brand of football has left all-comers dizzy this season as Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling et al inexorably waltz their way to the Premier League title – one that could be set in record-breaking fashion.
There is a long overdue revival in Serie A with Inter Milan, under Luciano Spalletti, becoming a force once more. Perennial winners Juventus, defeated Champions League finalists in May, are also under threat from Napoli and Roma. AC Milan’s murky situation on and off the field, however, remains a worry. Elsewhere, Bayern Munich have gone back in time to re-appoint treble-winner Jupp Heynckes after Carlo Ancellotti’s demise, but the Bundesliga is as automatic as it ever has been for the Bavarian giants.
SALAH HANDS EGYPT A MO-MOMENT TO SAVOUR
Mohamed Salah has never seen Egypt play at a World Cup but will be the Arab world’s poster boy in Russia after dragging his country to the finals. Arguably no nation will lean as heavily on one man as Egypt next summer, after a scintillating first five months to the season that has Salah on the cusp of becoming a global superstar. He scored both goals in Egypt’s pivotal World Cup qualifier against Congo – including the last-minute penalty that sealed their historic qualification.
And even though Salah has the weight of a football-mad nation on his back, he has remained calm, humble, and endeared himself to Liverpool fans the world over after such a stunning start to life in the Premier League. Egypt are joined at the party by three other Arab nations in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco at the World Cup.
Some of the biggest stories of the year however are reserved for the nations that did not make it through qualifying – and emotions will be running high in Italy for quite some time yet. The four-time winners, the land that produced Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio and Gianluigi Buffon, slumped to what was previously an unthinkable nadir after a qualification play-off defeat against Sweden. For the first time since 1958, the Italians will not be gracing the World Cup.
There was also deep embarrassment for the USA, who boast one of the world’s most promising talents in Christian Pulisic but failed to progress from a tame qualifying group that included Panama, the small Central America nation heading to the World Cup for the first time. Other stars preparing to sit on their sofas this summer include Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, after Copa America winners Chile fell short, Wales’ Gareth Bale and the Netherlands – whose struggles, rather shockingly, are no longer shocking.
There was a feel-good story in failure, too, as war-torn Syria beat Saudi Arabia in their last group stage game to advance to a play-off with Australia. If Omar Al Soma’s free-kick had hit the net, rather than the post, the impossible would have become possible.
CLUB OF THE YEAR
Ostersunds do things differently – their team-bonding exercises include painting, singing, theatre and dance.
There is method in the madness as English manager Graham Potter has taken them to fifth in Sweden’s Allsvenskan and a glamour tie with Arsenal in the Europa League knockouts.
Not bad for a team who were in the third tier six years ago.
GOODBYE TO THE GREATS
Bayern Munich’s Lahm and Roma’s Totti were the ultimate servants. Lampard had a fine career with Chelsea, while Alonso wove his magic in Spain, England and Germany. Pirlo, for Juve and AC Milan, was a playmaker par excellence and Kaka at one time was the world’s greatest.
SIGNING OF THE YEAR
At an eye-watering €222m, Neymar could never be considered a bargain, but along with Kylian Mbappe, slightly cheaper at €180m, PSG have pulled out all the stops.
Neymar has scored 17 goals in 20 games so far.
Will a Champions League medal follow?
GAME OF THE YEAR
Barcelona 6 PSG 1 (6-5 on aggregate)
This was perhaps the game that forced PSG to do something drastic – like sign Neymar.
On the opposing side in March, the Brazilian scored a free-kick, a penalty, and then provided the game-winning assist for Sergi Roberto.
Impressive enough in isolation, but consider all this was achieved in the last seven minutes when Barcelona needed three goals to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals, and only then can you begin to grasp the magnitude. A match for the ages.