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.
Did you hear about the football manager who won five trophies in a calendar year but still managed to end it in danger of being fired?
Well, that might be harsh, but Zinedine Zidane knew what he was getting into when he took over at Real Madrid, and the French legend is on borrowed time after his team’s capitulation against Barcelona on Saturday.
It wasn’t the fact that Real lost the game that was so concerning, or even the scoreline: it was the way that they competed well in the first half but then totally collapsed after the break.
If Barca had been clearly superior throughout, it would have been easier to accept. “Well, they are just better than us,” could be the shrugged response from Madridistas.
But that wasn’t the case, because Real were the better team during the opening period, dominating possession and territory, and creating a handful of decent chances to take the lead including a header from Karim Benzema which hit the post and a tragicomic ‘airball’ mishit from Cristiano Ronaldo.
After the interval, however, there was only one team in it. The fact that Dani Carvajal was sent off is immaterial – it did not change the game, because Barca were already well on top by then and the right-back staying on the field wouldn’t have made much difference.
So what happened? The obvious observation is that two key Barcelona players, who had been kept quiet in the first half, were able to take over: Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi.
In the opening period, Busquets had been man marked by Toni Kroos, who was playing further forward than usual thanks to the inclusion of Mateo Kovacic, whose two-man tag team with Casemiro on Messi worked pretty well (although the Argentine did still create two chances for Paulinho).
From the 46th minute onwards, though, it was as though two completely different teams were playing and suddenly Busquets and Messi were granted the freedom of the immaculate Bernabeu turf, with the result that Busquets sprang the move for the first goal, Messi created the chance for Luis Suarez that eventually led to the second, and it could have been a lot more as the Blaugrana found gaps with alarming ease every time they came forward.
Suarez!! What a beautiful Barcelona goal pic.twitter.com/b3WrTZZiFS
— True Soccer Life (@TrueSccrLife) December 23, 2017
Why there was such a major change to the pattern of the game is hard to fathom. Were Kroos, Kovacic and Casemiro tired out by their first half exertions? Did Barca make tweaks – like playing Messi deeper and Andres Iniesta more centrally – to affect the balance of play? Or was it just one of those things that can happen without anybody knowing why?
We can speculate, but Zidane had to do more than speculate: he had to notice, react, and change. But he didn’t. Throughout the entire 45 minutes his team were dominated, with the fact that even Aleix Vidal managed to score – his first league goal since February and first ever for Barca away from home – serving to really rub in just how much better the visitors had become while the home team failed to respond.
Real, though, are not really that much worse than Barca – or, at least, they shouldn’t be. We saw that towards the end of last season, when they deservedly won La Liga and then thrashed Juventus 4-1 in the Champions League Final. We also saw it in the first half on Saturday, when they were marginally the better team.
But in the same way that they lost their way in the second period at the Bernabeu this weekend, Los Blancos have also lost their way in general this season and Zidane appears to be unable to do anything about it.
Before long, he won’t get many more chances. Club President Florentino Perez is not noted for his patience, once firing Vicente Del Bosque the day after he won the league and also axing popular Carlo Ancelotti a year after winning the Champions League, and the trophies taken by Zidane in the past will count for nothing if he doesn’t look capable of delivering more in the near future.
Realistically, Perez would be taking drastic measures even by his own standards if he dismissed Zidane now, and the Frenchman probably has a few weeks to show that he really is capable of turning things around.
But then, on 14 February, comes the crunch date: Real vs Paris St Germain in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.
If Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani and co are able to dismantle Zidane’s men in the same way that Barcelona did this weekend, his time will probably be up.
Here we take a look at the player ratings for Real Madrid.
Navas 6. Made a great reflex save to tip Paulinho’s powerful first half strike over the bar. No chance for the first two goals but should have kept out Vidal’s shot in stoppage time.
Carvajal 7. Made an early statement of intent by winning the corner for Ronaldo’s disallowed goal, and continued to get forward regularly. Perhaps his best team’s best player until he was rightly sent off for a deliberate handball.
Varane 5. Was often troubled by Suarez’s aggressive running, looking harried and uncertain especially in the second half when his team’s midfield went missing.
Ramos 5. His frustration was summed up when he was booked for an ugly swipe on Suarez. Came close to scoring with a late shot at the near post.
Marcelo 4. A frequent attacking threat in the first half, delivering the cross for Benzema’s header against the upright. But he could have done a lot more to prevent Barca’s opener and was defensively abject in the second period.
Modric 6. Excellent between the lines of midfield and attack in the first half, but nowhere to be seen when Barca took over in the second.
Casemiro 5. Clumsy in possession and failed to do his main job in the second half, giving his defence scant protection from Barca’s repeated attacks through the middle.
Kovacic 5. A surprise selection in the centre of midfield and initially did a tidy job in preventing Barca from building possession, but he was terrible in the second half as Barca ran rings around him.
Kroos 6. The selection of Kovacic allowed him to play in a more advanced role than usual and he got into several good positions in the first half, but – like the rest of Madrid’s midfield – he disappeared after the break.
Benzema 5. Linked play nicely in the first half and unlucky not to score with a glanced header against the right post. Invisible after the break and sacrificed by Zidane when Carvajal was sent off.
Ronaldo 6. Always a goal threat. In the first half he had a header disallowed for offside, fluffed a great chance with an air shot and forced ter Stegen into a low save with an angled drive. But he contributed next to nothing outside the box.
Nacho 5. Introduced after Carvajal’s red card, slotting into the vacant right-back slot but looking ill at ease as Barca regularly threatened down his flank.
Bale 7. Came on for the last 15 minutes and did well down the right, showing plenty of purpose and forcing two saves from Ter Stegen with decent efforts.
Asensio 5. Appeared from the bench at the same time as Bale but had no impact.