There was a point during Real Madrid's Champions League first-leg tilt with Paris Saint-Germain where manager Zinedine Zidane had a choice to make.
To boldly attack and risk defeat, or settle for a draw and regroup.
If the match was on a knife's edge at 1-1, PSG manager Unai Emery's decision to remove striker Edinson Cavani and bring on right full-back Thomas Meunier was the first wobble in Real Madrid's favour. Leaving Angel Di Maria on the bench and limiting his changes to just the two was, perhaps, the second.
It was as clear a sign as any that the PSG boss would be content to settle for one away goal at the Santiago Bernabeu, and contend the rest of this matchup at the Parc des Princes. By bringing on a defensive substitute, Emery had essentially asked if Zidane would like to settle too, while also goading him into making changes that might have just opened up the match for his own benefit.
You could forgive Zidane for caving to the temptation. For almost 80 minutes, the two teams went back and forth in a scintillating match that could very well have gone either way. A 1-1 score would preserve Zidane his touchline role, too – the French tactician had been facing questions about his future as Real Madrid manager throughout the season, as his side sits fourth in La Liga.
Even he admitted a loss to PSG would cost him his job, telling reporters: "That is really clear. I am responsible for this, I'm the coach. So I must find solutions."
So Zidane took a risk.
Instead of settling, Zidane injected Gareth Bale, Lucas Vazquez, and, crucially, Marco Asensio into the team from off his bench, and also removed his midfield anchor Casemiro as well as creator Isco. Losing the former left his midfield exposed defensively, and taking off Isco cut a highly successful supply option:
100% – Isco Alarcon completed all of his 38 passes in the first half against PSG, more than any other player. Baton. pic.twitter.com/78qtoJOtbM— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 14, 2018
100% – Isco Alarcon completed all of his 38 passes in the first half against PSG, more than any other player. Baton. pic.twitter.com/78qtoJOtbM
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 14, 2018
Ten minutes separated the two teams from a draw. Four minutes after Zidane made his changes, Asensio spotted Cristiano Ronaldo for his second goal of the game. Three minutes later, those attackers opened up space for Marcelo.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Call it luck if you will, but in a match this close, it was Zidane's willingness to take a calculated risk that proved the difference over PSG. Front-loading his lineup could very well have backfired, had the likes of Neymar or Kylian Mbappe used that extra space to inspire a game-changing move of their own.
If that happened, Zidane's risk may have cost him his job.
But Zidane's leadership style has always been one of example: his pedigree as a footballer commanded instant respect in perhaps the most ego-driven locker room in world football, and it is that same insistence that he leads by example that saw him once again boldly go into the fire, in the hopes of finding success.
As Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane explained to GQ Spain last October, Zidane encourages his players to "take more risks" in an effort to promote their qualities. "In addition," Varane goes on to explain, "his personality transmits a sense of calmness, serenity, and strength" – traits that made a high-pressure match winnable, even if Zidane had every reason in the world to play it safe.
Marcelo celebrated the third goal – the last of the evening, which gave Real Madrid a 3-1 aggregate lead in this series – by running over to hug Zidane. If there are questions of Zidane's tactical abilities as a manager, there are none regarding the respect or the loyalty he commands from his players.
Indeed, too often this season, Real Madrid and its stars have been subject to disregard. The narrative that Ronaldo is slowing down, or that players like Isco, Asensio, Bale, and Marcelo aren't up to scratch, have seen the 12-time Champions League-winning side fall, if even a little, from its high pedestal.
Zidane's job is not done – PSG will bring plenty of fight in the second leg in Paris, with memories of last season's collapse against Barcelona all too fresh in the memory. Real Madrid's backline must shake some of its fragility, too. It will take a total effort over another 90 minutes to advance to the quarter-finals.
But if there's a lesson to take from Real Madrid's latest showing, it's that writing off this team is its own risk. Zidane proved once more that fortune favours the bold, and there is no team bolder or more self-assured than Los Blancos.
(Photos courtesy: Getty)
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