Things are not what they used to be at Real Madrid. Arrigo Sacchi once asked Florentino Perez what the team would look like if the president picked the XI and he scrawled a 4-4-2 down on a piece of paper with Zinedine Zidane at centre back – it was the only way to fit all the attacking players in.
Jose Mourinho brought a large dose of defensive pragmatism when he arrived in 2010 and Rafa Benitez now gets away with all but admitting that in the recent Madrid derby Real looked to defend their 1-0 lead in the second half only to concede and draw the game. In the old Real Madrid team – the one with Zidane in its midfield – the phrase ‘defend a lead’ was never heard.
As Benitez prepares for his first Clasico on Saturday, the pressure is on him not just to beat Barcelona but to turn on the style. There are claims that Cristiano Ronaldo has told the president the team will never win while he’s in charge, while television footage shows Ronaldo complaining to Sergio Ramos that the team played ‘too deep’ against Sevilla in their last match, a 3-1 defeat.
All the time Zidane waits in the wings ready for his chance should it come along.
‘He’s taking his time and he is not going to be rushed by anyone,’ Emmanuel Petit said of his old World Cup-winning team-mate recently.
Zidane has never been in the kind of rush Pep Guardiola was at Barcelona to become a first-team coach. But he did admit in the summer that if the club had called him to take charge this season he would have been ready.
This week in an interview in Bild, Zidane speaks of Toni Kroos being the final piece in Real Madrid’s jigsaw. That is not the way Benitez sees it and he is even contemplating leaving the cultured German midfielder out of Saturday’s staring line-up to make room for the defensive muscle of Casemiro. He probably won’t do it but the fact that it is an option speaks volumes.
Therein lies the difference between the two men’s philosophies and it will not be long before the fans are calling for some French flair if Benitez begins to lose ground on the only enemy that really matters to Madrid.
Zidane has not been pulling up any trees in the B-team, Castilla, but that has no bearing on whether he can do the first-team job. Blending together his own mix of some of the best players in the world is a very different job from trying to get the best out of some talented teenagers in Spain’s third tier. Zidane did Benitez no favours by also saying in that Bild interview that he hasn’t seen a bad Bayern Munich game since Pep Guardiola took over.
Benitez has a year’s grace whatever happens. Even if Perez decides he is not getting a second season he will not be sacked mid-term. It will be a Manuel Pellegrini-style long goodbye – the now Manchester City manager was let go after one season and knew his fate halfway through it. There is still everything to play for and Benitez is happy to make the most of the defensive resilience he has instilled in the team, whenever he can.
And if things have not been all cartwheels and backflips in the attacking department, Benitez can point to a lengthy injury list and the absence of Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale for most of the last two months.