Neil Humphreys: The honeymoon's over, now for Zidane's first proper test
Frenchman's taken shackles off Real, so it's time for Ronaldo & Co to pull away
ROUND OF 16, 1ST LEG
ROMA v REAL MADRID
(Tomorrow, 3.30am, Singtel TV Ch 112 & StarHub TV Ch 212)
It's not easy being Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid coach.
Being Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid footballer, was a walk in the park, often literally.
He was an anarchic artist, a punk performer who spray-painted masterpieces. The Frenchman was a walking contradiction, both a team player and a temperamental maverick who answered to no-one.
He managed to be both altar boy and Sex Pistol, often in the same game.
Now, Zidane answers to everyone.
As he prepares for his first Champions League game as coach, against Roma tomorrow morning (Singapore time), he must be all things to all people.
He's expected to win a La Liga title he cannot win, with a squad he didn't assemble, so he can satisfy fans who are permanently dissatisfied by wrestling control from a dictator who sacks anyone who disrupts the balance of power.
Zidane once lived a charmed life, nonchalantly swinging a volley towards the top corner to steer Real to victory in the 2002 Champions League final. He was a living god among the Madridistas.
Now he's just the latest manager living on borrowed time, like his predecessors. If nothing is certain but death and taxes, at Real, nothing is certain but the axe and taxes.
Club president Florentino Perez's tried, tested and failed formula of hiring the latest flavour of the month to manage his beloved Galacticos, took an unusual turn when he appointed one of them for the first time.
Perez's stars are now handled by the starriest of them all and Zidane has enjoyed the inevitable honeymoon. He has dropped just two points in six La Liga games.
The players have warmed to his training sessions and coaching philosophy, hardly surprising considering he succeeded Rafa Benitez.
Short of sending out Real in a chain gang, wearing concrete overcoats and hobnailed boots, the players were always going to benefit from the Frenchman's firmly-held belief in liberty.
Benitez's stifled suffragettes are no more. The shackles were cast off. Convincing wins against Sporting Gijon (5-1), Espanyol (6-0) and Athletic Bilbao (4-2) hinted at a changing emphasis, both individually and collectively.
Before Christmas, Cristiano Ronaldo pouted more often than a Zoolander extra, seemingly distracted by the box office of his documentary rather than his box office at the Bernabeu.
But he's back to his best. At the age of 31, he's not just scoring - good, bad or indifferent, he always scores against La Liga's lesser lights - he's also scoring Boy's Own blockbusters again.
He's dropping shoulders and duping defenders. He's dribbling and dancing, playing to those internal, hypnotic rhythms.
With a hat-trick against Espanyol and a double against Bilbao, Ronaldo is now managed by a coach who isn't wary of him, but reveres him.
Benitez kowtowed. He gave Ronaldo an inch and the winger took over Madrid. Zidane has curtailed the ego and improved the performance, by not pandering to the Portuguese's delusions of grandeur.
Ronaldo's strengths do not warrant the freedom of the Bernabeu. He's not a playmaker, but a belligerent pest. Zidane has confined him to the left wing and has been rewarded with devilishly brilliant contributions.
As the Real coach pointed out, man against man, there is still none better than Ronaldo. Why allow him to meander across central midfield when he already has Toni Kroos?
Zidane has incorporated a refreshingly retro approach, reminding his players of their attacking strengths, rather than fussing over their defensive duties as Benitez once had.
Kroos, Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric are cherishing their liberation, delivering fast, incisive football that was absent under Benitez.
On the right, James Rodriguez now offers glimpses of that cocky kid who dazzled in a Colombia jersey at the World Cup.
The biggest compliment for Zidane will soon become his biggest headache. The injured Gareth Bale hasn't been missed. At some point, the coach has to accommodate Perez's Chosen One. And therein lies Zidane's underlying objective. He must please his insufferable paymaster. He must pick Perez's players and top up the trophy cabinet.
Zidane's previous glories no longer interest the Real president. With Perez, what's past is prologue. Just ask Carlo Ancelotti.
So that only leaves the Champions League. Real's Copa del Rey exit and the four-point gap to La Liga leaders Barcelona make Zidane's task ominously simple.
All he has to do is win the last-16 tie and go on to lift the trophy.
The honeymoon is over. It's time for Zidane's first proper test.
He's removed the players' handbrake. Now they must pull away in Rome.
The key to the tie is us. If we are on top form, we will win. We have to take into account the speed of their forwards, but we are Real Madrid, for me the best team in the world, and we have the best defenders in the world.
— Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema
SPALLETTI WON'T PUT 'CAGE' AROUND RON
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane reckons Cristiano Ronaldo is in top form as the Portuguese looks to increase his Champions League goals tally when they visit Roma in the first leg of their last-16 tie tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Ronaldo is the competition's leading marksman this season with 11 goals, a record for the group phase.
Zidane, a Champions League winner playing for Real in 2002, said Ronaldo was on top of his game after the Portuguese scored twice in last Saturday's 4-2 La Liga win over Athletic Bilbao.
"Cristiano is very important on the wing because when he attacks one-on-one, he's very good... He's very hard to defend against," said Zidane.
"That's how we scored the first goal (against Athletic)."
Roma coach Luciano Spalletti said he won't sacrifice players in a bid to shut down the threat of the 31-year-old Ronaldo.
The Italian insisted that the belief and ambition of his players, and not the past history of either club, will be key to whether they can upset the formbook at the Stadio Olimpico.
"Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world," said Spalletti (below).
"He can always make the difference.
"He's a modern player - strong, fast, and able to score a lot of goals.
"But I won't make a cage around him, I won't use three players to mark him.
"The player to counter Ronaldo must be - amongst other things - quick. (Defender) Alessandro Florenzi could be an option."
Spalletti is in his second spell at Roma after replacing sacked Frenchman Rudi Garcia recently and, among his other achievements, boasts the feat of steering Roma to consecutive 2-1 wins over Real in the last 16 in 2008.
Real have made it to the semi-finals of the competition the past five seasons, claiming their historic "Decima" two years ago when current coach Zidane was assistant to Carlo Ancelotti.
Efforts to go one step further last year were rebuffed when Juventus claimed a 2-1 win in Turin and booked their place in the final against Barcelona, thanks to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.
But Spalletti said past experience will count for little.
"People are talking about experience, but that doesn't matter in games like this. What's important is having the determination and courage," he said.
"We won't feel sorry for ourselves if we get beaten, but we will if we don't give it everything."
Daniele De Rossi completed training on Sunday and will be part of Roma's matchday squad.
Spalletti also confirmed that Francesco Totti could be involved against Real after he sat out the 3-1 victory over Carpi last Friday with a muscle problem.
- Wire Services.
He's the Champions League leading scorer this season with 11 goals, a record for the group phase. Scored seven of the 23 goals notched by Real in their last six league games under new coach Zinedine Zidane.
His late winner in the 2-1 victory over Granada on Feb 7 was his first Liga goal since Sept 27, 2014. The midfielder has four assists this season.
French striker has scored 16 goals in his past 12 outings in all competitions, including two hat-tricks, and had found the net in five of his last six games under Zidane.
German midfielder has seven assists and scored his first league goal of the season in the 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao last Saturday.