ZidaneZinedine Zidane faces his biggest task as a coach to restore Real Madrid's fading form before Barcelona visit the Bernabeu, writes Desmond Kane.
Every so often, reality and an ill wind bites ferociously at Real Madrid, prompted largely by largesse and their own sense of pride. No coach or team in professional sport can go on winning mercilessly and majestically without giving due consideration to the wider world. Even when you are the world game's Galacticos.
Even if at times it feels like Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid’s European champions have been shrouded by some sort of mystical emollient that makes the sensation of failure feel as far from the Spanish capital as Rafael Benitez in Geordieland.
Zidane will mark two years in the Madrid job on January 4 since succeeding Benitez, a quite astonishing 24 months that has seen him become the first man to win the FIFA and Ballon d'Or awards as the world’s greatest coach and player.
Zidane has celebrated two Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups, two European Super Cups, La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup. This startling spell has even superseded his five years as a player at a club where he won the Champions League, Liga, European Super Cup and the old Intercontinental Cup in the early noughties.
But the management game in Madrid is as precarious as donning a Catalan flag in the Spanish capital: you are inviting trouble if you aren’t pleasing the locals. And how those locals need to have their senses soothed at the Bernabeu this Yuletide. An enduring summer of love has been followed by the onset of this harsh winter of discontent.
Zidane finds himself in a right old pickle before unbeaten league leaders Barcelona, who were filleted 5-1 over two legs of the Spanish Super Cup in August, arrive for their high noon meeting with Los Blancos on Saturday lunchtime. Played against the backdrop of Catalan local elections and the ongoing independence crisis enveloping Spain's politics, it is hardly a fixture that needs added trauma.
But there is an anxiety seeping out of Madrid, a team who have lost form more alarmingly than Devon Loch. Zidane confronts this business overseeing Madrid's worst run in the Spanish league in nine seasons. Who says managing excellence and egos was easy?
A win for the visitors would be akin to the moment Clint Eastwood's William Munny takes out Gene Hackman's Little Bill in the Unforgiven. In Liga, Real Madrid would be 14 points behind and dead men walking. To many Madridistas, it would be unforgivable.
Madrid are 11 points behind their bitter foes, and occupy an unthinkable fourth place in La Liga, five points behind Atletico Madrid and three adrift of Valencia.
If second is nowhere at Real Madrid, what does the sunken emblem of fourth place represent to such a starry club? Zidane knows the answer to this question as he was part of the last Real Madrid lot to limp home in fourth back in 2004.
Back then, Madrid enjoyed a cast of millions including David Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, but were spectacular loss leaders.
They were throttled in their last five Liga matches to end the season behind Valencia, Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna. It represented a historic, humiliating and costly failure. And saw coach Carlos Queiroz dismissed after only 10 months in the job.
Above and beyond the immediacy of Barca, comes Paris Saint-Germain, the world’s heaviest-spending club, in the Champions League last 16 on February 14, two legs laden with a heavy sense of foreboding about just where money can get you these days against the club who built their stock on purchasing it.
Past glory means little under Madrid president Florentino Perez, a man with a penchant for culling coaches as quickly as he gives votes of confidence. Zidane is the 11th coach in only 13 years. The French World Cup winner works for a bloke who sees himself as pivotal to the Madrid project as the players.
A manager who could no wrong suddenly looks like the novice he was when he was handed the Madrid job two years ago as a figure of risk and inexperience.
His task has hardly been helped by Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-times world player of the year, having his worst domestic campaign in nine seasons scoring only four league goals so far.
Zidane has learned on the job becoming a marvellous upholsterer as much as a coach. He has not tinkered too much, staying true to the counter-attacking instincts of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti in the role, but injuries and suspensions to Dani Carvajal and Marcelo have nullified the threat from wide areas.
Already there are murmurings that he should dispense with Isco for this match because he slows down Madrid in possession. And there is Zidane's major problem. Perez thinks he knows best because he runs the wider business.
"He’s a fantastic person but when he gets to thinking he knows everything about football he makes mistakes," said Queiroz. "The president didn’t want to understand how things worked and in the end it was me who was made to pay.”
This may not be the beginning of the end, but well may be the start of a more telling period. Pride comes before a fall. Finding a fresh formula is more difficult than sticking with an old one.
Is Zidane entitled to a season of spectacular failure for what he has done in two years of brilliance? History suggests you don’t want to put Perez on the spot.