?As the final whistle blew at the MetLife stadium in July, a result was about to send shockwaves throughout the football world.
Atletico Madrid had just devoured rivals Real Madrid, humbling their neighbours in a 7-3 defeat – a scoreline which, if anything, flattered los Blancos.
It may have only been a pre-season match, but the writing was already on the wall for Zinedine Zidane. No more excuses. Madrid had spent huge money on ?Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Ferland Mendy in the summer, and the squad was being moulded exactly how their French coach had wanted – perhaps with the notable exception of one Paul Pogba and the irritating persistence of Gareth Bale.
Nevertheless, with only one La Liga title win in seven years, there had to be a challenge to Barcelona’s reign at the top of Spanish football this season.
Madrid’s pre-season was nothing short of a shambles. Zidane desperately lurched from one tactical car crash to another, switching to a five-man defence to allow his wing-backs more freedom.
But the creative midfielders provided no cover for their backline, and Los Blancos were ripped apart time and time again during a harrowing summer of uncertainty. Two goals conceded to ?Arsenal, three to Fenerbahce and Bayern, a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and the aforementioned 7-3 humiliation by Atleti.
Someone press the panic button.
But the big red button was avoided, for the time being. Madrid stumbled and fumbled their way into a top-two position alongside an equally unimpressive Barcelona at the start of the season, with both sides dropping points on the regular and looking unconvincing.
With Mauricio Pochettino’s job hanging in the balance at Spurs, and José Mourinho eyeing a return to management, the vultures began to circle over the Bernabeu. The Frenchman’s time was running out, fast.
But then, after ?Madrid’s defat to Mallorca in October, a monumental shift occurred that would change the fortunes of both La Liga hopefuls. Zidane’s search for balance and stability saw him embrace a pragmatic, solid style, with young Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde earning his chance in the team and Casemiro providing the perfect shield for his flat back four.
The marauding ?Marcelo was replaced with the more defensive-minded Ferland Mendy, whose introduction has seen Los Blancos concede only three goals in the 12 matches in which he has featured.
The hard-working Karim Benzema continues to lead the line, and their wide players are responsible for creating the opportunities for their clinical French forward to dispatch.
A quiet revolution was unfolding.
Meanwhile, in Catalonia, pragmatism had become the enemy of football at Camp Nou. Ernesto Valverde has never been known for his Johan Cruyff-like ethos, and ?Barcelona fans felt that the time had come to bring some real entertainment back to the club.
In fairness to Valverde, his side had won the last two La Liga titles, and they were top of the league upon his enforced departure. The punishment didn’t quite fit the crime.
This swinging of the pendulum may prove to be the moment that Madrid were handed the advantage in a tricky title race.
Having been left severely burnt by the summer’s acid test against ?Atleti, Zidane’s men have since faced Diego Simeone’s warriors twice in the space of a month. The first meeting saw Madrid lift the Spanish Super Cup, beating Los Colchoneros on penalties after a tense 0-0 draw.
Valverde was the hero of that encounter, epitomising everything that this new Madrid stands for, when he sacrificed his own participation by hacking down Alvaro Morata as the Spaniard bore down on goal. And he was awarded the Man of the Match award for doing so.
Los Merengues then hosted Atleti on Saturday afternoon, in a clash which would have seen the league leaders extend their title advantage to six points if they were able to overcome their fierce rivals.
And in their new-found efficient manner, Madrid ground out a 1-0 victory, limiting their visitors to a mere handful of opportunities over the course of the 90 minutes. Zidane’s side rarely forced Jan Oblak into serious action – but they didn’t need to.
?Benzema was typically ruthless in front of goal, converting his only serious chance from a lovely whipped Mendy cross, and the defence was typically miserly. The win puts the pressure on Barcelona to get back to winning ways, after their slip against Valencia last week.
Zidane has come under plenty of criticism since his return to the Bernabeu dugout – so perhaps it’s time to hand out credit where it’s due.
Strong attacks win you games, but strong defences win you titles – just ask Zidane.