March 29, 2023

Before the defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk, the message from Real Madrid bosses was reassuring in tone: “Zinedine Zidane’s position isn’t in doubt. What happened against Cádiz was an accident. We have faith in our coach.” At half time on Wednesday, however, with Madrid 3-0 down to Shakhtar, their phones were ringing non-stop.

Club president Florentino Pérez remains convinced that Zidane is the right man to handle a dressing room as varied and ego-heavy as Madrid’s, but the twin blow of traumatic losses to Cádiz and Shakhtar has served to erode some of the hierarchy’s confidence in the head coach.

Zidane can remedy this with a good result at Barcelona on Saturday, together with a performance that gives an unhappy fan base cause for renewed optimism.

Since the questionable decision to sell Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus in 2018, Madrid have failed to make it past the last 16 in the Champions League two years in a row and now, after going down at home to the group’s weakest side on paper, they already have work to do to avoid the embarrassment of not even reaching the knockout stages.

This was not the plan. With economic losses of over 190 million euros due to the absence of fans in stadia because of the coronavirus pandemic, an early Champions League exit would be an added financial setback that the club does not want to contemplate.

Zidane can argue, justifiably, that in his short time as boss he has amassed no fewer than 11 trophies, including three consecutive Champions League titles. But at Madrid all that matters is the present, and things are not going well at all right now.

Zidane gave his blessing to the departure of two of the best full-backs in Europe in Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilón this summer, has no room in his squad for a Spain international in Dani Ceballos and asked for the 2019 signing of Luka Jovic, the worst 60 million Madrid have spent in years. “I must be doing something wrong,” ‘Zizou’ himself said post-match on Wednesday.

Third straight loss would set Real alarm bells ringing

Club chiefs will convey a message of calm and support to the Frenchman between now and the weekend so as not to disrupt preparations for the Clásico, but if Madrid fall to a third defeat straight – against their arch rivals, to boot – the situation would head into dangerous territory.

On social media, the debate over Zidane is already hotting up. Mauricio Pochettino, who is available, became a trending topic on Twitter after the Shakhtar defeat and the name of Raúl González, an in-house solution as he is currently in charge of Castilla, the club’s ‘B’ team, was also widely mentioned.

Only Zidane can reverse this situation – by settling on a regular side that puts in recognisable displays, does not exhibit the weaknesses on show in the past four days against theoretically inferior opposition, and wins back some respect. There will be a lot at stake at 16:00 CEST on Saturday…

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