The dismissal of Rafa Benitez yesterday as Real Madrid boss after only seven months may have come as a shock but it wasn’t unexpected. The former Liverpool, Valencia and Napoli boss was a dead man walking from the very first moment he walked into the club. At the press conference to announce his arrival back at the club after a twenty year absence, Rafa seemed nervous unsure exactly what he had let himself in for. The man alongside him, president Florentino Perez did little to alleviate concerns by failing to really explain why the club had sacked well liked coach Carlo Ancelotti weeks before and further troubling why Benitez was the right man. In the end, he wasn’t the right man at least in Perez eyes as it was the President who acted swiftly yesterday by firing Benitez and replacing him with club legend Zinedine Zidane.
Managing Real Madrid is one of the hardest jobs in football currently as Benitez found out. There are few dressing rooms in the world where the players have as much say in the running of the organization than at Real Madrid. Established characters like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo dictate everything that goes on with few managers able to really find a way to deal with them. Rafa took the tough approach of my team my rules which was not received well and immediately put him on uneven terrain. Things gradually got worse as the fans and media rallied behind the players who appeared disinterested and unwilling to fall into line as much as Benitez had hoped. Results on the pitch were good with Real winning eleven of their first 18 games of the new La Liga season scoring 36 goals along the way including an impressive 6-0 thrashing of Espanyol and an even more impressive 10-2 demolishing of Rayo Vallecano. But draws against Malaga, Sporting Gijon and Atletico Madrid as well as back to back defeats to Seville and Barcelona had the crowd on Benitez’s back. The final nail in the coffin came when Real were kicked out of the Copa Del Rey for fielding an illegible player, Denis Cheryshev in their match against Cadiz. It was an administrative error by the club but in the end it would be Rafa who would take the fall as Perez reacted in the only way he knows how to.
Its now up to Zidane to get Real back on track and firing again on all cylinders. This time however he has the backing of the president which was clear to see at the announcement of his appointment. Perez quite simply looked like the cat that had gotten the cream, smiling widely as the cameras clicked furiously. Perez’s love for Zidane is well known with the president boastful about his role in bringing Zidane to the club ten years ago. Perez’s admiration for the former French international has led to the former midfielder being given several high profile roles within the club despite obvious better candidates being available. First he joined as a special adviser to the first team before becoming the clubs Sporting director less than eight months later. He would hold that role for two years before being appointed as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant in 2013. The move was seen as Zidane’s first step towards management, gaining valuable experience for Ancelotti with a view to eventually replacing him. But as the Italian excelled, the prospect of securing the Madrid top job became less likely so instead Real placed Zidane in an incubator role managing the club’s B side with the hopes that it would be the making of him as a manager much like Barcelona did with Pep Guardiola and latterly Luis Enrique.
But success with Castilla did not come as easily as expected with Zidane failing to ignite the touch paper. Results and performances were hardly inspiring considering the wealth of talent at his disposal. He couldn’t find the proper system or figure out how to utilize exciting prospects like Martin Odegaard, Lucas Torro or even his own son Enzo Fernandez. Despite all this, he has been handed the keys to the kingdom by Perez ahead of more accomplished coaches like one Jose Mourinho. Zidane spoke well at his press conference promising to reintroduce the exciting and beautiful football that Real fans had be starved of under the cautious Benitez. His first training session was attended by 6,000 avid fans who screamed and applauded as Zidane took to the field. The players minus Gareth Bale who missed through injury appeared to enjoy the session listening closely to Zidane’s every word as if he was the messiah. Everything appears to be perfectly set up for Zidane to succeed in his new role. But like Benitez, Zidane will judged by results and performances in on the pitch. It is there where we will find out if his appointment was an inspired choice by Perez or another bumbling move by a president so intent on saving his own skin that he puts his own interests ahead of that of his club.