By Liam Twomey and Alberto Pinero
It has been a long road back to the Champions League final for Real Madrid. The 12 years since Zinedine Zidane scored one of the greatest winning goals of all time to defeat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 at Hampden Park have seen 11 managers dismissed, over a billion euros spent on players and bitter rivals Barcelona crowned ‘Kings of Europe’ three times. For the club which defines itself by its record nine triumphs in football’s elite club competition, such a monumental drought could only ever transform ‘La Decima’ from an ambition into an obsession.
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Time and failure have forced Florentino Perez to assemble a fresh galaxy of stars for the task. Cristiano Ronaldo was a flashy teenager on the cusp of the Sporting Lisbon first team in the summer of 2002. Gareth Bale was a schoolboy in Cardiff. Carlo Ancelotti was still a year away from his first Champions League title as a coach. From lesser beginnings, all three now stand on the verge of history.
But no one at Santiago Bernabeu knows more about long journeys than Paul Clement. The one-time PE teacher, now Ancelotti’s most established and trusted lieutenant, still marvels at where he was when he watched in awe as Zidane plucked a looping Roberto Carlos cross out of the sky to seal his legend.
“I was coaching with the kids, at the academy of Fulham,” he tells Goal. “I remember watching the final with that goal from Zidane. It was amazing - one of the best goals I've ever seen.”
Now the three-time Fifa World Player of the Year is a colleague, working in tandem with Ancelotti and Clement as part of a coaching team which has already won the Copa del Rey, helped the Italian compile the highest win percentage of any manager in Madrid’s history and may yet deliver the trophy Florentino covets above all others.
“It’s a pleasure to have Zidane as a partner on the coaching staff,” Clement adds. “He is a great person and will be a very good coach. I don’t know if he will leave Real Madrid this summer [Zidane was linked with Bordeaux prior to Willy Sagnol’s appointment] – that is in his hands. All I know is that he will be a great coach in the future.”
If Clement seems startlingly confident of his own worth in such illustrious company, it is only because of the remarkable faith Ancelotti has shown in him. It was Guus Hiddink who first recognised his potential and offered the chance to work with the Chelsea senior squad in 2009, but the Italian is the man most responsible for the stellar coaching CV he has compiled over the past four years.
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Moving to France brought personal and professional challenges. Clement had to relocate his family and learn French, as well as adapt his methods to a new squad, league and footballing culture. He is now adding Spanish to his growing repertoire and insists Madrid is another step up.
“Real Madrid is a great club,” he continues. “I've been in big clubs before, like Chelsea or PSG, but when you get to Real Madrid, from the first day you realise the impact you have and how big everything is. It's great to be here with these facilities, these players, coaches, and all the resources we have at our disposal.”
With unparalleled resources, however, comes unparalleled expectation. Having surrendered the Spanish title meekly to city rivals Atletico Madrid in the final weeks, Ancelotti’s legacy – and future – at the Santiago Bernabeu could well depend on the outcome of Saturday’s battle against the same opponents in Lisbon.
But Clement believes there is cause for pride regardless. "It's been a great season,” he insists. “We have fought for every title. It was a shame to lose the league in recent games because we had been fighting for it until the end. Congratulations to Atletico. But we have won the Copa del Rey, and are now in the final of the Champions League. I think if we win we could put a '10' on the season. But that's only if we get it. If we don't, we could put a '9.9' on the season, or at least a '9' – very high.”
Victory would constitute the greatest achievement of Clement’s coaching career. Even defeat and dismissal might well yield another rewarding adventure with Ancelotti. But whatever the outcome on Saturday, there is cause for hope that English football will one day reap the full benefits of a remarkable apprenticeship.