How can Zinedine Zidane end Barcelona's La Liga dominance?
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Real Madrid's fairytale ended this past campaign. After claiming three straight Champions League titles, the Galacticos endured their worst season in recent years. Real went trophyless for the first time in the last four years and looked a mere shadow of their former selves.
Los Blancos had a season to forget. A young Ajax team [not to be confused with Jong Ajax] brutally exposed their shortcomings, knocking them out of the Champions League in the Round of 16, 5-3 on aggregate. After winning the first leg 2-1 at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, the Merengues were humiliated 4-1 in front of their own supporters at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Immediately prior to that defeat, they had dropped consecutive Clasicos to Barcelona, 4-0 on aggregate, one in La Liga, the other in the Copa del Rey. That was the end for Santiago Solari's brief spell in charge. Zinedine Zidane made a stunning return but Real finished a massive 19 points behind arch-rivals Barcelona in the Liga table with city rivals Atletico Madrid also topping them in the standings.
Although the Blaugrana suffered a similar fate, collapsing in both the Champions League and Copa Del Rey, their Liga triumph gives them some bragging rights. In fact, Barca have won four of the last five domestic crowns and seven of the last ten. Madridistas are tired of finishing behind the Catalans.
Zizou's return proves club president Florentino Perez and his board are also fed up. This is a different challenge for the Frenchman, however. His first three Champions League titles and the one La Liga title he won came through an inherited squad. He made no major signings in his original two-and-a-half years, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Marcelo to do what they do best. Similarly, he made few changes in defence beyond welcoming back Dani Carvajal and allowing Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao to leave. Young players such as Casemiro, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic and Dani Ceballo found their way into the squad. The most controversial move from the legendary midfielder was to cast aside James Rodriguez in favour of Isco.
Now, however, too many of those players are on the wrong side of 30. Zidane's task this time, already begun, was to sign and mould new talent into a force to match Barcelona.
While that may seem daunting, successive managers at the Nou Camp have been papering over the cracks as their stars age. Xavi Hernandez left for the Gulf, Andres Iniesta for Japan. Luis Suarez is ageing. So are Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. Neymar jumped ship. The new blood, including Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, fails to impress. Lionel Messi is like Atlas, carrying the burden of the entire Blaugrana universe on his shoulders. It proved too much in the Champions League and Copa.
The timing couldn't be better for Real Madrid with Barcelona also retooling. Frenkie de Jong debuts in 2019/20. The club continues to chase his Ajax teammate and best friend, Matthijs de Ligt although the latest rumours suggest the teenage centre-half rejected a €75 million offer.
Madrid moved quicker than the champions, already completing five signings. Eden Hazard arrives from Chelsea to pair up with Europa League semifinal opponent Luka Jovic, late of Eintracht Frankfurt and reunite with fellow Belgian and former Blues keeper, Thibaut Courtois. Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Takefusa Kubo also joined. Los Blancos are much younger now.
It remains to be seen what is done with James Rodriguez. If he decides to move on after competing in the Copa America with Colombia this month, Zizou will have more money to complete the overhaul. If Gareth Bale is sold, the club might see another veteran or two join Hazard.
Zidane is no-nonsense. He can motivate a squad to produce its best football but little time is wasted on those who don't respond or don't fit his plans. James learned that two years ago. Bale is experiencing the same cold shoulder. Luka Modric may find the air in the clubhouse chillier as well. A young team will be inconsistent in the same manner that an old one tires. A few bad results will expose the weaknesses in the new squad. Zidane will iron them out.
Barcelona shouldn't make the mistake of looking beyond La Liga to the Champions League next term. If they do, Real Madrid will sneak up on them. Instead, they should be planning on a much tougher domestic campaign. In fact, they should hope for it. If someone can push them to greater heights in Spain, they might also go further in Europe.