Zinedine Zidane makes football look easy. As a player he effortlessly glided across the turf, inspiring his teams to myriad trophies during a glittering career. As a coach, he stepped into the sport’s most scorching hotseat, with no top-flight experience, and has proceeded to deliver six pieces of silverware in 19 months at Real Madrid.
Zidane emulated legendary AC Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi in June by lifting successive European Cups at the age of 44 and he followed in the Italian’s footsteps again in Skopje with his second straight UEFA Super Cup, adding to the winners’ medal he claimed as a player back in 2002.
Real Madrid is a trophy-hungry club like no other but Zidane is proving a master at sating the fans’ insatiable appetite. Manchester United were the latest side to be rolled over by Zizou’s ruthless charges, the Red Devils dispatched despite being further into pre-season, with more match practice under their belts.
Los Blancos did admittedly look off the pace early on and laboured a little in the second half too, but in between the phases of fatigue they played some irresistible football. The beating heart of this team is its exceptional midfield. Shaped in the image of the coach with ball-players aplenty, the quartet of Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco remarkably cost the same combined as Paul Pogba. But while the Frenchman was once again guilty of trying too hard and making poor decisions, Madrid’s maestros ran the show.
“The midfield players of Real Madrid are one of a kind,” losing boss Jose Mourinho commented after the game. “There are no replicas of Modric, no replicas of Toni Kroos, no replicas of Isco, no replicas of Casimero. They are really solid and the way they move the ball makes it very difficult for opponents.”
The gulf in class between the respective midfields was stark. On paper, and on the pitch, United have at least been markedly improved by the arrival of Nemanja Matic, who brings a long sought after balance at the midfield base. Ander Herrera worked hard alongside him but when Pogba is off-key there is a dearth of creativity. Just one of Modric or Isco would make a world of difference to United, but their verve and innovation is reserved for those greedy galacticos.
Isco, in particular, was outstanding in Skopje. Deservedly named the official UEFA man of the match – and greeted by a round of applause in the media centre, a very rare occurrence – his deft shimmies, intelligent passing and coolness in front of goal were more than a little reminiscent of Zidane. Isco’s goal proved to be the winner and it was delightfully crafted, a smart one-two with Gareth Bale opening the space for the playmaker to calmly slot past David De Gea.
Zidane isn’t one for outward emotion but beyond the icy exterior there appeared a twinkle in his eye in the post-match press conference. Madrid have moved on to four Super Cup victories, leaving them just one behind joint-record holders Milan and Barcelona.
Real Madrid are looking to become the first side since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win three consecutive European Cups
“We have lots of talented players who work hard, and we can win lots of things with these players who are hungry and want to win,” Zidane said. “The match was almost perfect, we suffered a bit in the second half, but that is normal.”
The debilitating heat certainly took its toll on Madrid’s players in the second half and it made for a slow-paced affair at times. But the Philip II Arena crowd were unperturbed, the biggest game to grace Macedonia enthusiastically received by the supporters – who reserved the biggest cheer of the night for the cameo appearance of Cristiano Ronaldo as a late substitute.
As if the presence of Zidane and Co in Skopje wasn’t enough, the Real Madrid coach even kindly offered the country’s tourist board some valuable PR fodder, saying: “We had a very good reception here in Macedonia. In the stadium there were many fans of Real Madrid. We can only thank the support of all the Madridistas in Macedonia.”
It was once again a night for those in white, and it would take a brave man to bet against Zidane adding further honours in 2017-18.
REAL MADRID VERDICT: Superior to United all over the park, if this was a team lacking match fitness, the potential for the finished article is utterly frightening. Real relish making history and the next target is becoming the first side since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win three consecutive European Cups.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: There were plenty of positives including a goal for Romelu Lukaku on his competitive debut, Nemanja Matic adding a physical presence to the midfield and Marcus Rashford’s stirring second-half performance. But this side is very much still a work in progress, with Mourinho conceding as much: “I always say that the Champions League is one thing and Europa League is another thing. For us to come here against the Champions League winners and to do the things we did, I think we can start the Premier League season on Sunday with a positive feeling.”