Who would’ve thought that coming into the biggest game of the La Liga season, everyone would be hailing Zinedine Zidane’s tactical genius and placing the blame for Barcelona’s downfall on Luis Enrique; a man who won them their second treble in his first season and who, to this point, has triumphed in five of the six major competitions in which the Catalans have played since his appointment.
Make it seven from nine if you want to add in last season’s Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup victories.
Indeed, it’s not really been that long since the Asturian was being hailed as better than Pep Guardiola given that he had become the quickest Barca coach to 50 and then 100 wins, and had a team who were scoring more than the famed sextuple-winning side.
However, just as at the back end of the last campaign, Barcelona have hit a brick wall and run out of steam, and Enrique appears devoid of ideas on how to avert the slide.
After going unbeaten in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League from October 18, 2015 to April 2, 2016 — a 38-game run that ended in what was coincidentally Zidane’s first El Clasico as coach — the Blaugrana collapsed with three straight defeats in the league and a loss to Atletico Madrid in European competition. All came within the space of 15 days.
This past Saturday, Barca were lucky to come away from their fixture against Real Sociedad with the three points and only profligate finishing from the visitors ensured that their appalling record at the Camp Nou, where they’ve not won since 1991, continued.
That followed below-par performances against Juventus in their Champions League quarter-final first leg and at Malaga. Not forgetting the Paris Saint-Germain and Deportivo La Coruna debacles from a few weeks ago.
Though the Catalans played much better against Juve on Wednesday, the lack of tactical nous was there for all to see. A solid defensive line is, evidently, all that’s required to keep this illustrious eleven at bay.
Enrique’s side were far enough ahead in the league in 2015-16 to just about get over the line. Another game or two and Zidane’s Real would surely have pipped them at the post.
This season, Los Blancos can, for all intents and purposes, win La Liga on Sunday with an expected victory. Mathematically, they could still be caught but being six points ahead with a game in hand at this stage would have to see a collapse of momumental proportions.
The perception is that Real have been lucky under Zidane — eight times in 2016-17 they’ve drawn or won a game with a goal in or after the 89th minute — but what it truly evidences is a never-say-die attitude from a team moulded in their coach’s image.
No matter which players are in his starting eleven, the Frenchman has made it work. A midas touch if you prefer, because rarely have his substitutions and rotation not been successful.
His team have scored in an astonishing 55 consecutive games and they continue to wear down teams across 90 minutes, attacking from every conceivable area of play.
An embarrassment of riches has allowed Zidane to utilise virtually every member of his squad, and it’s something he has managed studiously and sensibly.
Though he was a little ‘green’ managerially when he took the job from Rafa Benitez, there’s little doubting that he has what it takes and, frankly, he’s put Barca’s second-rate second string to shame.
In what amounts to a winner-takes-all El Clasico, should he triumph again, then the baton will have well and truly been passed from Catalonia to the Spanish capital.