Los Blancos tied up their first league title since 2017 with a 2-1 victory over Villarreal and are worthy winners despite claims of VAR assistance.
As a player, Zinedine Zidane was renowned for sudden, violent outbursts. As a coach, he is far more adept at keeping his emotions in check.
Monday night at the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes was different, though.
Zidane knew that a win would leave his Real Madrid side needing just two points from their two remaining Liga fixtures to secure their 34th title.
He celebrated Ferland Mendy and Karim Benzema’s first-half goals wholeheartedly and when Granada pulled a goal back just after the interval, he booted a ball away in frustration in his technical area.
Despite intense late pressure from the hosts, though, Madrid held firm, and as the final whistle blew on a crucial 2-1 victory, Zidane let out an almighty roar.
“That scream at the end was only normal,” he said afterwards, “because you suffer a lot.”
Indeed, this wasn’t an expression of joy but a cry of defiance, because Zidane and Real have suffered a lot over the past two years.
And now, following their 2-1 win over Villarreal on Thursday, that suffering has paid off.
When he sensationally stepped down as Madrid coach in May 2018, after leading the club to a third consecutive Champions League, Zidane explained that he felt he was no longer the right man for the job.
He thought Real couldn’t continue winning with him; as it transpired, they couldn’t win without him. Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari both tried to fill the void left behind by Zidane. Both failed.
So, Perez brought him back last March, at a time when Real were in utter disarray after seeing their prospects of winning a major title in 2018-19 effectively ended by three defeats in a week.
Captain Sergio Ramos and president Florentino Perez fell out and the centre-half even considered leaving for China before eventually committing his future to the club during the summer.
Perez, meanwhile, spent €300 million (£285m/$360m) strengthening the senior squad, most notably with the addition of Eden Hazard. The Belgium winger was a player that Zidane had been urging Madrid to sign for a decade and his belated arrival proved that Perez had ceded to the coach’s request to have a greater say in the club’s recruitment policy.
However, Zidane’s second spell in charge still looked more likely to fail than succeed when the 2019-20 season began.
Pre-season had been a disaster. Hazard showed up overweight and then missed the start of the campaign with what proved to be a succession of injury issues.
A 7-3 friendly loss to Atletico Madrid had also set alarm bells ringing and Real looked anything but title contenders after winning just one of their opening three Liga fixtures.
“Everything was lacking tonight,” a despondent Zidane confessed after a 2-2 draw at Villarreal on September 1. Just over two weeks later, Madrid were embarrassed by Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League opener.
Real performed abysmally at the Parc des Princes, and against a PSG side shorn of the services of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani. For the first time in 10 years, they had failed to register a single shot on target in a competitive fixture.
AS claimed that Madrid had “no soul”, while former forward Predrag Mijatovic cast considerable doubt on Zidane’s future.
The 1998 Champions League winner told El Larguero: “I don’t see Zidane capable of finding the solutions Real need for the team to improve.”
They have improved, though. Not spectacularly, but steadily. As Barcelona disintegrated as the season wore on, Madrid solidified.
Zidane helped Sergio Ramos get back to his best, which was key to transforming the defence into the meanest in the La Liga, and coaxed a stellar campaign out of his compatriot Karim Benzema, who carried the attack.
Two of the longest-serving players at the club proved Zidane’s most reliable performers during the title run-in, producing one decisive moment after another as Real went from second in the standings to top of the table.
It was Benzema who was on hand to open the scoring in the victory over Villarreal – his 20th league goal of the season and the 13th time he scored Madrid’s first goal in a league game this term.
And those two combined for the second – almost farcical – goal. Ramos pinched the ball and won a VAR-assisted penalty which he stood over himself. But instead of sliding it past Sergio Asenjo himself, he played the ball forward for Benzema to smash home.
But the referee deemed encroachment had taken place. A retake was ordered and Benzema slotted it home. It was a cushion Madrid were glad to have when the final whistle blew because of Vicente Iborra’s fine header to beat Thibaut Courtois late on.
It is testament to the coach’s man-management and organisational skills that he has managed to deny Barca’s bid for a third consecutive title without being able to rely on his most expensive players.
Hazard has been injured for most of the season, former Eintracht Frankfurt hotshot Luka Jovic has proven a disaster on and off the field, while Zidane’s relationship with Gareth Bale has broken down to such an extent that the Welsh winger now spends most of his time trying to stave off boredom while sitting on the bench.
Madrid’s first major trophy since the departure of all-time top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2018 is, therefore, a massive achievement.
Barcelona’s implosion undoubtedly helped, with the Catalans inexplicably sacking Ernesto Valverde while his team were top of the table in January and replacing him with Quique Setien, a coach without a single title on his CV.
However, Madrid have ruthlessly exploited the chaos at Camp Nou with an impressive 10 Liga wins in a row following the suspension of play caused by coronavirus.
They are most worthy champions, and Zidane is a most worthy recipient of the plaudits that should now come his way, having made excellent use of his squad; 21 different players have scored for Madrid this season, while the World Cup winner has displayed his tactical versatility by alternating between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations since the restart.
He has long been accused of being a ‘lucky’ coach, while this season’s title run-in has been plagued by claims of Real receiving preferential treatment from match officials, with Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu sniping: “VAR always favours the same team.”
But Real have fought fairly and tenaciously for every point. As Zidane said last week, “You cannot achieve anything without suffering.”
Madrid’s latest Liga win is the perfect case in point. After the pain of last season, Zidane and his players have come roaring back to silence their critics.