Zidane's second Real Madrid cycle coming to an end after Copa humiliation

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Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid
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Fans have expressed their displeasure after the Spanish champions' midweek Copa del Rey exit to minnows Alcoyano, with Zizou in the line of fire

Crises come thick and fast at Real Madrid but the latest is more humiliating than most for coach Zinedine Zidane, even if he refuses to admit it.

On Wednesday, the Frenchman’s side were eliminated from the Copa del Rey at the first hurdle by third-tier minnows Alcoyano, who saw out extra time with 10 men.

“It’s not shameful, this is something that can always happen in football,'' Zidane insisted, while at the same time acknowledging his future at the club has been cast into doubt, after two cup exits in a week, with the Alcoyano debacle coming just six days after the Supercopa semi-final loss to Athletic Club.

Zizou's second stint in the Spanish capital hasn’t been anywhere near as sweet as his first, which included three consecutive Champions League triumphs.

Last season’s spectacular sprint finish to pip Barcelona to the finishing line in La Liga owed as much to the Catalans' implosion as Madrid's admirable fighting spirit.

Without the suspension of play caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a high chance the Blancos would not have been able to depose the Catalans.

Madrid's great problem in Zidane’s second spell has been goals – the lack thereof – with the club no nearer to replacing the long-departed Cristiano Ronaldo and his superhuman numbers.

The gameplay is often ineffective and unexciting, with Madrid far from thrilling to watch, at least until the crunch moments of the game when everything is at stake and they are scrambling for a late goal to salvage points or pride.

Supporters are not able to show their displeasure as easily as usual, with fans still being kept away from Santiago Bernabeu and Spain’s other footballing cathedrals, but recent results would have drawn jeers, whistles and even the dreaded white handkerchiefs.

Toni Kroos Real Madrid GFX

Zidane is fortunate that at Madrid results can sustain a coach, in contrast to at Barcelona, where style matters more, but even on that count he is failing of late.

Madrid have won just one match in their last five and city rivals Atletico sit seven points clear in the league table, having played one game less, making Diego Simeone's side firm favourites for the title as we reach the halfway stage of the season.

Initial reports in Spain suggested Zidane could be sacked in the coming week, depending on the weekend result against Alaves, but his job is safe for now, even if his hopes of immediately turning things around have been further complicated by the fact that he has been forced into self-isolation having tested positive for Covid-19. 

His position more likely hinges on the Champions League last-16 tie with Serie A upstarts Atalanta. Should Madrid suffer another humiliating early European elimination, following killer blows by Ajax and Manchester City in recent seasons, Zidane’s time will be up.

If they progress, the coach will likely get until the end of the season, although barring a stunning turn in fortunes and a 14th Champions League success, his cycle at the club will soon be over.

Some supporters have already run out of patience. In a poll conducted by the Madrid daily Marca, 70 per cent of the more than 100,000 people that participated agreed that the ‘Alcoyanazo’ should be Zidane’s last game in charge.

One problem for trigger-happy president Florentino Perez is that his reluctance to sack Zidane earlier in the season, when the team were floundering, allowed Paris Saint-Germain to move for former Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino first.

The Argentine is liked at Madrid and he has been eyeing up the Bernabeu bench for years, but opportunity knocked in the French capital and he took the plunge at the Parc des Princes instead.

Pochettino was the obvious replacement for Zidane, but after a huge week in which Madrid beat Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach and Atletico, questions about his future were long forgotten. Until now.

Sergio Ramos Real Madrid GFX

Zidane can’t seem to motivate his players for the smaller games, despite their strong showings against stronger sides – they have beaten Barcelona and Inter (twice) this season, while losing at Cadiz, Alaves and now Alcoyano.

Part of the problem is his reliance on the old guard – players like Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and Karim Benzema – with new signings finding it hard to work their way into the team, bar Ferland Mendy.

Perez can point to the money spent on Luka Jovic and Eden Hazard as signs of his investment in the team which Zidane has not capitalised on, but the coach would argue his demands for players have not been fulfilled, given a move for long-time target Paul Pogba never materialised.

“The Bernabeu bosses don’t understand Zidane’s approach with certain younger players who are strategic bets for the club for the future,” wrote Tomas Roncero in AS.

“At the same time, he has protected veteran players who appear to be lacking motivation and are focused on things other than a desire for winning titles – no matter what.”

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Zidane’s desire to bring back Martin Odegaard from Real Sociedad, where he was progressing startlingly quickly, before leaving him out in the cold is one prime example. Now the Norwegian playmaker could join Arsenal, even as Madrid struggle desperately for creativity.

The change in Zidane's demeanour has been notable. Always cool and unbothered, Zidane now seems irritable and short in his press conferences. The smiles are few and far between, with the exception of the wry smirk that flashed across his face as Madrid fell at Alcoyano.

Sometimes if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.