As the clouds gathered over the RCDE stadium on Tuesday night, none were as dark as the one positioned just over the head of Zinedine Zidane. The Real Madrid boss looked like a troubled man as he watched his side deliver a sub-par performance against an Espanyol side that Madrid should be beating with ease. It’s been a frustrating La Liga campaign for Real Madrid who have struggled to achieve consistent form throughout, much to the frustration of their manager. In Barcelona on Tuesday night, Zidane’s growing frustration with his team was evident. Despite his composed exterior, Zidane was mentally kicking every ball and cursing every loose pass that his team delivered. As a player, Zidane made that side of his game look completely effortless so he must have been seething inside at the sheer volume of rouge passes on display from his talented squad. This was a night when nothing went right for Real or for that matter for Zidane.
Just over to his right his opposite number, Quique Sanchez Flores (who EPL fans will remember for “failing” at Watford) appeared to grow with confidence as the game progressed; a wry smile eventually creeping over his face as he started to realize that an upset was possibly on the cards. To be fair to him and his Espanyol side, the result was justified in the end due to the effort exerted by his team from back to front and the tactical masterclass he manufactured. Unlike Zidane, Flores managed the game like a pro – defending well in the first half and absorbing pressure all the whilst examining Real for weaknesses. At half time, he tweaked and encouraged his side to play wider and probe for the first twenty minutes of the second half. This opened up the game sending the ball back and forth like a pinball. In the last twenty five minutes Flores could clearly smell an upset and reacted brilliantly by bring on two attack minded players in Granero and Leo Baptistao whilst adjusting his formation on a fluid basis switching from a 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 and even a riskier 4-2-4 to exploit the gaps that an ever increasingly desperate Real side was creating. Even when the game looked set to be a draw, Flores was pushing his side forward and to his delight got his reward in the 93rd minute when Gerard Moreno half volleyed the ball beautifully past Keylar Navas. The stadium and its fans erupted whilst Flores celebrated passionately on the side lines. That goal which was followed swiftly by the full time whistle sealed Espanyol’s first win over Real in a decade – 22 attempts during that time and only 3 draws along the way. The win lifts them to 13th in the league but puts Madrid firmly out of the title race and heaps more pressure on Zidane who sulked away as the referee ended the game without acknowledging his opposite number or his players.
The decision to rest Cristiano Ronaldo will be the main talking point after the game but in truth it was more down to Zidane’s team selection from the start. With Ronaldo not travelling with the squad to Barcelona and a host of key players out injured (Modric, Kroos, Marcelo etc), Zidane decided shuffle the pack deploying Gareth Bale and Isco in prominent central attacking roles. Whilst the Spaniard managed to pull some strings from a slightly deeper playmaker role, the Welshman looked simply like a round peg in a square hole as the main focal point of the attack. A superbly talented and exciting winger he is but a centre forward he is not. Bale flourishes when facing the goal, ball to his feet and given the freedom to stretch his legs but fails to ignite when forced to hold up the ball and play with his back to the goal. As a result, he was often found wandering naturally back towards the wing leaving a sizeable gap in the middle. That gap by the way that could have been filled by Karim Benzema who as the only recognizable striker in the match day squad (bar youngster Borja Mayoral) should have started. It’s clear however that Zidane does not fancy him; most likely because of the French strikers often lack of enthusiasm for the game and resulting lack of effort. But even as a passenger Benzema would have offered a more potent strike option for Real on the night and at the same time freed Bale and Isco to do what they do best – create. Benzema did eventually make an appearance as one of three subs used by Zidane (strangely substituting the highly effective Isco for him) but the twenty minutes he was given didn’t prove enough for him to hit his stride.
With the league now surely gone and having been humiliatingly knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes last month, the sole focus will be on retaining the Champions League for a record third time in a row. If they can accomplish this, it may be enough to earn Zidane a stay of execution from the Real board – strange as that may sound. Anything other than lifting the coveted trophy will surely result in his departure and bring to a close the legends affiliation with the club, at least for now.