Darkness descended on Real Madrid, the metaphor visiting them on a Sunday night in Valladolid, light not let in until the following evening when he returned. The week after they lost it all, the man returned who won it all. Zinedine Zidane is back. Less than a year since he walked out, insisting that this was a “see you later” not a “goodbye”, he has walked back in again. Just how different the place is, just how bad it had got in his absence, was shown by seven days in which it all slipped through their fingers. Shown too, by the last game before he relented and said yes, Santi Solari’s final game in charge: a match that mattered so much partly because it didn’t matter at all.
There was less than an hour to go before kick-off at the José Zorrilla on Sunday night when the lights went out on Madrid again. They sought a first win since beating Levante 13 days earlier, back when they had a season, but they couldn’t see amid the gloom. The electricity had been cut. It was dark in the dressing room, dark in the directors’ box, and dark on the pitch. From the stands, fans tried to illuminate the warm up with their phones. Slowly, the floodlights flickered into life as down in the referees’ room the possibility of postponement was raised. Which is one way of escaping reality and putting off the inevitable.
In the end, the inevitable would not be delayed and on Monday afternoon Solari was gone and Zidane was back, but as that prospect took shape, it was easy to imagine the manager, or Florentino Pérez, the president, slipping silently into the shadows with a pair of pliers in their hands.
Zidane’s arrival responds to the need to seek peace, stability, optimism for the future; enough damage has been done
“It’s in adversity that you see who’s there and who isn’t, who hides and who shows their face,” the coach had said the day before. But hiding is a natural desire sometimes, when there is nothing else to live for, and in adversity things had got even worse. Three home defeats in seven days had eliminated Madrid in the cup, league, and the Champions League, ending their season and starting everything else: the revelations, the rumours, the recriminations, and a run of games they’d rather not play, survival the only aim now, every man for himself. By Wednesday night, the danger was no longer defeat itself but the destruction that follows it.
Zidane’s arrival, and his arrival now rather than at the end of the season, responds to the need to avoid that, to seek peace, stability, optimism for the future; enough damage has already been done. First they needed to stem the bleeding.
At the end of Madrid’s loss against Ajax, the president, Florentino Pérez, went down to the dressing room. They had been European Champions for 1012 days, an era unlike any other in the last 50 years, but they were out now and instead of gratitude to a team that had won four of the last five Champions Leagues, there were accusations. Deep tensions resurfaced, rancour released, and an argument began between Pérez and Sergio Ramos, standing to defend his team-mates and himself from charges of unprofessionalism and indulgence. Voices were raised and Pérez, whose cool façade is just that, expressed aloud a desire long held, threatening to kick out the captain. “Pay me, and I’ll go,” Ramos shot back.
Defeat had drawn many of them out, the division and the doubts, the distrust, anger revealing and widening fault lines, fingers of blame pointing everywhere: towards players, president, and project. The crisis moved into different territory, well beyond the pitch.
Endless polls asked: “what should Madrid do now?”. One answer might be “don’t lose their heads”, but patience is a virtue for which few have any time and in the aftermath of defeat it’s not so easy to stay calm.
Many fans demanded what fans tend to demand: more signings, more bollocks, an iron fist. Fury on the board drew similar conclusions, conscious too that this is a decade that does not belong to them domestically, and convinced that player power has damaged them. They felt the pull of apurge, revelations justifying that need, as people moved to protect themselves, even at the cost of others. Ultimately, though, they found some peace, a public relations success: they convinced the one man who could unite everyone, unanimously admired, promising to correct errors of the past. He will have issues to deal with; holding all the cards, he may also have the authority to do so, greater even than ever before.
Yet those who had appeared on their way out may be given a second chance now, instead of being jettisoned.Long since ostracised, Isco hadn’t attended the team meeting before the Ajax game and had not travelled to the Bernabéu on the team bus. Publicly accused of being out of shape by his manager, even with six injuries he was not included in the squad for Valladolid and disciplinary proceedings were opened. Marcelo, who had argued with Ramos in training the day before, captain and vice-captain confronting each other, was given just two minutes at the end. Ramos, suspended as he had been against Ajax having deliberately got himself booked, travelled anyway – the day after both of Madrid’s sports dailies led on the same headline, echoes of a concerted campaign: “Ramos takes charge.” On Monday morning, he posted an interview with himself, a kind of public defence at a time when the sands are moving.
On the day before the game even Solari spoke out in a press conference for which he arrived over an hour late, tension building, suspicions that he might have been sacked already. He would be soon, everyone knew; many even suspected that it would be this soon, barely 48 hours later, but still it surprised when it actually happened. Asked if the players had been worthy of the badge, he replied: “the majority of them … and those that weren’t, I’ve told them.” The coach was going down swinging, knowing he was on the way. If there seemed little point in burning another manager in these final, meaningless months, the search for a solution had started and some itched to act immediately, to prevent the crisis deepening. No game is meaningless at Madrid.
Zidane initially said no: there was a reason he walked, issues to be resolved. Pérez remained caught between the urge to go for José Mourinho, coincidentally stumbling across journalists on his street, and the recognition of the risks involved. Some of the board appealed for patience; in the summer, there will be other managers. But there was also that nagging feeling that they shouldn’t wait that long, living in limbo. They kept trying with Zidane. They were not always optimistic that he would agree, but he did. And for now, not just in the summer.
So, Solari is gone.He had always known he wouldn’t last long. He had been employed as “temporary” coach, a status only updated because Federation rules demanded it. Being “permanent” didn’t mean being permanent, today proved. It never would: “We’re all passing through,” Solari had said.The Argentinian has been in charge for 119 mostly underwhelming and ultimately disastrous days, the last seven especially. Briefly, he seemed to have got things right but then the collapse came. Three defeats in a week meant that his team, which won’t be his team for long, arrived in Valladolid with 12 matches to endure. Madrid do not have a game that really matters for almost six months.
And that is too long. Half of that is too long. A single game was the limit.There was only one thing to play for on Sunday, said the cover of Marca: “Pride.” Underneath, they added, in brackets, as if whispering a horror they dare not say aloud: “[And hanging on to a Champions League place].” By the time the bus rolled in, Getafe were just three points behind them; Alavés, seven; Sevilla, eight; Valencia and Betis, nine. Few seriously thought fourth spot was in danger, but the very possibility was appalling, and importance lay in its lack of importance. If it was presented as a matter of survival, a poor performance likely to precipitate events, plans were already in place. What they didn’t know yet was if they could bring it to pass.
To start with the performance was pitiful. Floodlights fixed, it started just two minutes late, but Madrid’s darkness remained. Valladolid have scored just 20 this season. “My top scorer has three,” said manager Sergio González. In fact, he has two. They had scored once in five matches. And yet against Madrid, they could have got three in a quarter of an hour: twice they had goals disallowed and Rubén Alcaraz sent a penalty sailing miles over. After half an hour they did have the lead, Anuar Mohamed scoring. In the directors’ box, cameras caught Pérez lifting his specs to peer at his phone. A few seats further up, Ramos watched and was watched. Madrid were in pieces, falling apart, the crisis deepening, all their ills surfacing together: a portrait – a caricature – of their season. “Shit”, as Dani Carvajal had called it.
“It was very, very difficult, very hard, and the players were sensational,” Solari insisted, but he was under no illusions, even then. Perhaps he even knew already he was gone. Asked if this was his last game, he said: “I don’t decide that so I don’t know, I can’t say.” Nor, it turned out, could the man whose job it is to say things: asked if Solari would still be in charge next weekend, the club’s institutional director, Emilio Butragueño, squirmed and wriggled and failed to answer. Four times. “We’re here to talk about the game,” he said, but he knew the game itself didn’t really matter. None of them did, which was just another reason why they felt that something had to be done.
• Rayo Vallecano manager Míchel was on an ultimatum, the reports said. Rayo had lost five games in a row, were in the relegation zone and he was about to get the sack. The message was clear: beat Barcelona or you’re out. They might as well have lined him up and told him that to keep his job he had to slay this dragon, cross that burning, shark-infested sea, and rescue the precious stone from the mouth of a crocodile. For a while, it looked like he might, too. R.D.T. scored a wonderful opening goal – and, yes, it really does say that on the back of Raúl De Tomás’s shirt – and Rayo led at the Camp Nou. Alas, it wasn’t to be. But if a Gerard Piqué header, a Messi penalty and a late third from Luis Suárez, saw Rayo defeated, it did not see Míchel dismissed.
• First it was Betis, then it was Valencia, and finally it was Sevilla who occupied the last European place, their recent crisis put on hold with a huge win at the Pizjuán. They defeated Real Sociedad 5-2 in a game which had two hat-tricks: one for Wissam Ben Yedder and one for Mikel Oyarzabal. The problem for la Real’s No 10 was that one of his three went in at the wrong end.
• Getafe win again. That Champions League place really is on.
• Atlético won 1-0 on the day Legánes took to the field with their mums’ names on the back of their shirts.
• Inui, cool as a cucumber. “He’s cheeky,” said Mendilibar, the man who used to coach him at Eibar and suffered him scoring a lovely goal for Alavés this weekend, neat dummy bamboozling the goalkeeper.
• This week’s best goal? Luis Milla, direct from a corner for Tenerife. Woof!Quick guide
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