It is still the greatest goal to ever win the Champions League final. 14 years on from Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final, and the scorer of that goal has laid the foundations to becoming one of the greatest managers of his time in the near future.
He has some ways to go, but as Real Madrid lifted the biggest trophy in club football on Saturday night with a 5-3 penalty shoot-out win over rivals Atletico Madrid (1-1 after fulltime), their coach Zinedine Zidane must have thought of the final against Leverkusen, his left-footed volley that won the game, and the career that followed.
Zidane was approaching 30 at the time, was one of the greatest of his generation and would retire in 2006---with that infamous head butt---having won it all.
If he were to call it a day in management today, it would complete an all too common love story in football. Player X joins club, player X wins titles with said club. Player X then goes into management and wins titles with the same club to tear-filled receptions from fans.
Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique have done it with Barcelona. Kenny Dalglish with Liverpool---even as a player-manager in the 1985-86 season. Ryan Giggs hopes to do the same with Manchester United, but walls that look like David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Jose Mourinho keep blocking his path.
But like his playing career, it would only be fitting for ‘Zizou’ to ‘become the best’ on the touchline too.
THRUST INTO THE LIMELIGHT
When Rafael Benitez was sacked as coach of Madrid in January of this year, Zidane was coaching the Real Madrid Castilla side. Being moulded for the big-time, but was seen as someone not quite ready. When he was given the reigns following Benitez’s sacking, many believed it would be a stopgap until a permanent replacement was found---Zidane had the name that Real demands, but not the experience.
The Los Blancos ended the season having won 12 games in a row, only missing out on the League title to Barcelona by a point.
Zidane had made his point, he was ready, but a win in a match when the whole world was watching, would prove that point.
His team delivered on Saturday, but to say the match was an entertaining final, would be incorrect.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone said after the final that Madrid “were better than us again, this time in the penalty shootout,” referring to the final from two years ago when Real won 4-1 in extra-time.
But was either team really that good?
Atletico Madrid finished their league season with the best defensive record of all the top five European Leagues, relying on the counter throughout the year to chip away at opponents. They made the opposition do the running, drained them mentally and hit them on the break. Real knew this all too well, having drawn and lost in the league to them, and took a cautious approach.
However, both Real---barring defender (read: Theatre artist) Pepe---and Atletico deserve praise for a largely clean final. Given the history between these two, no player getting sent off is saying a lot. It also meant a dull affair, two cautions opponents not willing to give too much away.
Gareth Bale said before the game that he “likes to run at opponents”, but he seemed to be on a tight leash. Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of the winning penalty, is showing his age at 31 and looks to be on the decline. Atletico’s star man Antoine Griezmann missed a penalty that he would otherwise have slotted in with his eyes closed.
The Real goal---a 15th minute deflection from Sergio Ramos---was well worked with Bale heading on a set-piece for the tap-in, but fingers would need to be pointed at the organisation of the Atletico defence. Had it not been for nerves, they would not be caught off-guard.
For the equaliser, Real would have to wonder how the cross reached the far post in the 79th for Yannick Carrasco to tap in so easily.
Ronaldo said after the match that he “had a vision” he would score the winning penalty. In Zidane’s vision, his team would have played with more flair.
Come next season, the Frenchman will be under immense pressure having won the Champions League, and it will be paramount he ensures his team challenge to the very end on all fronts. That though, is a situation Zidane is all too familiar with.
And Zidane usually wins.