Every reporter who asked Zinedine Zidane a question in his pre-match press conference ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting with Sevilla in the Cup, wished him a ‘Happy Year’.
It’s the standard greeting at this time of year – the Spanish don’t bother with the ‘new’, and in Zidane’s case it could not be more apt.
It has been a happy year – a very happy one. He took over at Real Madrid exactly 12 months ago and, short of winning the league, he achieved everything he set out to by lifting the European Cup and the World Club Cup, breaking a consecutive-games-without-defeat club record, taking the team to the top of La Liga, nicking a point off of Barcelona in El Clasico and generally bringing calm and harmony to a dressing room that was anything but when Rafa Benitez was in charge.
The most impressive thing about Zidane’s year is that no one really expected it. The whispers around the club last January were that for all his ability as a player Zidane just wasn’t cut out to be a coach.
His training sessions were routine and likely to bore top players. He was unable to impact on games once the first whistle had been blown and while his past record inspired, nothing much of what he said had anywhere near the same effect.
None of that has been born out by the passing of time. There have been dips. Real were shaky when he first took over and a 1-0 home defeat to Atletico Madrid at the end of February suggested all the doubters had been right.
The sight of players jogging back towards their own goal as Diego Simeone’s side stormed forward to score the only goal of the game smacked of a side not responding to their new coach.
But two of the slackers from that city derby, Isco and James Rodriguez, suddenly found themselves out of favour as younger keener players such as Lucas Vazquez – who has since made it into the Spain squad – took their places.
Much of what Zidane did towards the end of last season, his predecessor Rafa Benitez had tried to do. The current Newcastle manager was also partisan to playing the lively Vazquez instead of the occasionally pedestrian James and he believed Madrid operated more smoothly with holding midfielder Casemiro in the team.
But whereas Rafa’s attempts to drop big name players to make room for some worker ants were met with resistance by the powers that be, Zidane was given free reign. Who was going to argue with one of the greatest players in the club’s history? No one.