190404 Zidane
Zinedine Zidane. Image Credit: AFP

Zinedine Zidane has stepped down as Real Madrid coach with immediate effect, five days after his team were pipped to the La Liga title by city rivals Atletico Madrid, the Spanish club said on Thursday.

The Frenchman’s decision hardly came as a surprise amid a perception that he was relying too much on the old guard of his golden period and was unwilling to engineer the rebuilding of the squad the club felt it needed. Speculation is mounting on who would take over the hot seat at the demanding set-up,

Former Juventus and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is likely to be in the frame to replace Zidane, having walked away from Inter Milan on Wednesday after leading the club to the Serie A title.

Conte was a target of Real Madrid President Florentino Perez in 2018, according to media reports at the time. Club captain Sergio Ramos suggested, however, that a disciplinarian style might not go down too well at the Bernabeu.

MORE ON ZIDANE

Raul, a Real galactico who is in charge of the club’s reserve side Real Madrid Castilla at the moment, is a Perez favourite and is also a candidate for the job.

The 1998 World Cup winner and one of the finest footballers ever, Zidane led Real to two league titles and three Champions League triumphs in two spells as coach since 2016.

However, the 2020-21 season was a far cry from Zidane’s first three seasons at Real when he guided the club to Champions League crowns, a La Liga title and two Club World Cups.

He had stepped down after the last of those Champions League titles in 2018, saying the club needed a change, but returned in March 2019 on a three-year deal after the club sacked his two successors, Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari.

A second La Liga title followed in the 2019-20 season after the three-month pause in play due to the coronavirus pandemic, when his side overhauled leaders Barcelona to sweep to the title with a stunning 10 consecutive victories.

However, the limits of showing loyalty to a core of experienced players while having little faith in new arrivals became apparent the following season. He barely looked beyond his trusted midfield trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos or striker Karim Benzema, while marginalising the likes of right back Alvaro Odriozola, striker Luka Jovic and midfielder Martin Odegaard.

“Real Madrid announces that Zinedine Zidane has decided to bring an end to his current spell as coach of our club,” Real’s statement earlier in the day.

“Now’s the time to respect his decision and show our respect and gratitude for his professionalism, dedication and passion in the last few years and for what he represents for Real Madrid.

“Zidane is one of Real Madrid’s all-time greats and his legend goes beyond what he has done as a coach and player for our club. He knows that he is always in the heart of the club’s supporters and that Real Madrid will always be his home.”

Real finished two points behind Atletico, were knocked out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage by Chelsea and suffered a humiliating exit in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey to third division minnows Alcoyano.