Zidane emerges from Cruyff-tinged El Clasico the winner
A night that began with a colorful homage to a legendary Barcelona player turned coach in Johan Cruyff, ended with Real Madrid’s own version of a one-time playing great in Zinedine Zidane celebrating his first big victory in management.
Zidane’s men swept aside a tiring Barca in the closing stages of their 2-1 El Clasico win at the Camp Nou to bring a remarkable 39-game unbeaten run by the European champions stretching back six months to an end.
Moreover, they did so having come from behind after Gerard Pique’s towering header gave Barca an early second-half lead, and despite finishing with 10 men as captain Sergio Ramos was sent off for the 21st time in his career.
“Madrid needed a prestigious victory and a performance of the highest quality,” said Madrid sports daily Marca.
Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo got the goals, while Gareth Bale had another wrongly ruled out on a night when Madrid’s ‘BBC’ front three outgunned Barca’s star triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Ronaldo’s winner five minutes from time silenced critics of the three-time World Player of the Year that despite his 42 goals this season, he hadn’t produced enough in the big games.
Yet, it was Zidane who exited the Camp Nou with his credibility most enhanced after his first Clasico since taking his first senior managerial role back in January.
“Super Zidane” ran the front page of French sports paper L’Equipe back in his homeland.
Madrid’s hope in easing Zidane through the stages of assistant manager and then youth team coach was based in hoping he could be their Pep Guardiola.
An ardent disciple of Cruyff, Guardiola superseded the Dutch great as Barca’s most successful ever coach with 14 trophies in a glorious four-year spell between 2008 and 2012.
Madrid’s performance at the Camp Nou was far from the virtues of beautiful football extolled by Cruyff and Guardiola, or even Zidane in his playing days.
However, it demonstrated Zidane’s savvy and willingness to take big decisions.
Since losing 1-0 to local rivals Atletico Madrid last month after which he questioned his side’s work-rate and mental strength, two players of similar characteristics to Zidane the player in James Rodriguez and Isco have been sidelined for the more defensive-minded Casemiro, who shone in midfield.
To his cost Rafael Benitez dropped the Brazilian in favor of Rodriguez as Barca ran riot to win 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu earlier in the season.
This time round Madrid defended deep and rode their luck early on before exploiting Barca with their exhilarating speed on the counter-attack.
“We had a game plan, we know we’ve got speed on the counter-attack so we used that to our advantage,” said Bale.
“We know obviously if you attack them they’re not the best defensive team in the world.
“It wasn’t nice losing 4-0 at home and the main thing we wanted was get one up on them, especially in their own backyard.”
Despite defeat, Barca remain heavy favorites to win La Liga as they hold a six-point lead over Atletico Madrid with Real a further point back in third with seven games remaining.
However, ever since Zidane’s appointment, Madrid have had one eye on salvaging their season in the Champions League, where they meet Wolfsburg in the first leg of their quarter-final on Wednesday.
As 10-time winners, Madrid’s history is defined by the European Cup. So too was Zidane’s career as a Real player thanks to his sensational volley to win the 2002 final over Bayer Leverkusen.
“We know what we want to do in the Champions League,” said Zidane.
“For confidence it is very important to win here for the rest of the season.”
Madrid were always expected to see off Wolfsburg, but would now face any rematch with Barcelona or any of Europe’s elite with far more belief than before bursting Barca’s bubble.