Crunch time for Zidane

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Head coach of Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane (L) reacts during a Audi Cup semifinal match between Real Madrid of Spain and Tottenham Hotspur of England in Munich, Germany, on July 30, 2019. Real Madrid lost 0-1. (Photo by Philippe Ruiz/Xinhua)

Zinedine Zidane returned to save Real Madrid - and the time has come for results.

During a packed media conference at Santiago Bernabeu in March, club president Florentino Perez delivered the grandest of reintroductions.

"We need to start working on a glorious new era," said Perez. "That is why we welcome back Zinedine Zidane."

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane reacts during last Sunday's preseason friendly against AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Reuters

Some might have expected a bounce, but nobody blamed the coach when performances continued to drag and the gap behind Barcelona grew greater.

Zidane took over a team with nothing to play for and a squad he knew was in need of reform. He knew because he had left it nine months earlier, just before it was broken.

There was no quick fix.

In his 11 matches at the end of last season, Madrid won just five. The only promise of progress was in the mantra Zidane kept repeating. "Things will change, for sure," he said.

Zidane denied it, but those matches were seen as trials, every lineup scanned for clues as to who would survive the summer.

Yet in some ways, none of it mattered and the results, not to mention attendance at Santiago Bernabeu, said as much.

"The best thing for us is that it's over," said Zidane, after the season ended in defeat.

This weekend it begins again. A new season - and Zidane's second era as coach.

Many wondered why he came back, risking everything after winning three Champions League titles in as many appearances.

The assumption was he returned to a stronger hand, able to make demands the club was ready to meet and with the backing to rebuild in the way he had always wanted.

He might have been encouraged too, when Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic, Rodrygo and Eden Hazard all signed for a total close to $350 million.

Hazard was the headline act, a throwback to a previous era that Zidane knew well, when the world's most glamorous players seemed to walk through the doors every year.

"I'm not a Galactico, not yet, but I hope I will be one day," Hazard said when he joined.

Bale stalemate

But Madrid's pockets are not as deep as they once were and sales were also needed, by the club and its coach.

Zidane showed no inclination to use Gareth Bale, urging the Welshman to make a move to China.

"It is very close," Zidane said. "We hope he leaves soon, it would be best for everyone."

Bale's agent said Zidane was a "disgrace" and if the Frenchman had hoped to push a deal over the line, he would be disappointed as Madrid changed its mind over the fee.

James Rodriguez is also yet to leave, and there were others that proved more difficult to bring in, such as Paul Pogba and even Neymar.

In other areas, Zidane has resisted change, backing experience over youth even if many believed experience turned into apathy last season.

Marcelo, Casemiro and Keylor Navas have stayed while Marcos Llorente was allowed to join Atletico Madrid and Sergio Reguilon and Dani Ceballos were both sent out on loan.

But for all the talk of upheaval, Madrid's lineup against Celta Vigo on Saturday is likely to have a distinctly familiar look.

There could be a new formation, with a 3-5-2 tried after some underwhelming showings in preseason matches, allowing Marcelo and Dani Carvajal greater freedom as wingbacks and Hazard to slot in centrally behind Karim Benzema.

A shift in focus might also be in the cards.

Madrid has won La Liga only once in the past seven years, with its domestic failures excused by unprecedented success in Europe.

"For us next year, winning the league must be our top priority," Zidane said in April.

In that sense, Madrid might profit if Barcelona aims its focus at the Champions League. The Catalans and Atletico Madrid both look ready to challenge again.

"La Liga is the longest competition, it's the one that cannot be missed," Zidane said.

"I'm going to drill that in the heads of my players."

Now they have to deliver.

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