Zidane faces career-defining derby day test

©GettyImages – David Ramos

©GettyImages – David Ramos

In sport, career success or failure can depend on the narrowest of margins. Newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez was ostensibly advised against a move to the Premier League, and had he taken the advice of friends and family then this most remarkable of English football seasons might have played out very differently.

Zinedine Zidane has first-hand experience of how a single game can go on to define a career. That 2006 World Cup final headbutt on Marco Materazzi remains the defining moment in the playing career of one of the game's most gifted talents. Instead of bowing out of the international stage a double World Cup winner, Zidane left in ignominy. Many in France have never forgiven him.

Now, Zidane the manager faces two matches that promise to shape his coaching career in a similarly profound way. First, his Real Madrid side visit Deportivo la Coruna in a game that could decide the Spanish championship. Barcelona take on Granada at the same time, and Zidane knows that should his team prevail and Luis Enrique's side fail to win, he'll have won the league title in his first year in charge of Los Blancos.

Two weeks later, Real travel to Milan to take on Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final. This is the second time the two Madrid clubs have faced each other in a European title decider in just three years, and for Zidane, the stakes could not be higher.

Real's rollercoaster season now boils down to a two-week window in May. Two victories and Zizou will have won the double in his first season in charge – a titanic achievement. Two defeats and he can watch on a runner-up, as hated rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid celebrate. Real managers have lost their jobs for far less. La Liga is out of Zidane's hands – all he can do is set his team up to beat Deportivo and hope that Barca slip up at Granada. The Champions League? That's another story. 

The Merengue's recent record against their cross-city rivals is far from encouraging, though – that CL final victory notwithstanding. Atleti are unbeaten in six against their Bernabeu foes, and seem to have a psychological edge in the biggest games under manager Diego Simeone. Real have had a comparatively easy run to the final, and to beat Atletico in Milan Zidane will have to conjure greater intensity, togetherness and verve than was summoned over two legs against Manchester City.

Zidane could not have chosen a tougher opponent against which to test his budding managerial chops. Atletico Madrid are notoriously tough to break down, know all the tricks in the book and seem to delight especially in dismantling lavishly assembled European superclubs – the Champions League quarter- and semi-finals saw them defeat two of the modern era's greatest sides, after all. Zidane will know that his Real side could well be next.

Great players do not necessarily make great managers – for every Guardiola and Simeone there's a Maradona or a Shearer. Few, however, will ever find themselves in such a make-or-break situation in their debut senior managerial season. Winning the double could earn Zidane almost limitless goodwill from Real fans, giving his managerial CV the kind of lustre that so decorated his playing days. Finish the season with nothing and he'll be on borrowed time. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

– Louis Rossi