MILAN >> Already one of the greatest players in the history of football, it turns out Zinedine Zidane makes the right moves on the touchline, too.
Less than five months after taking over a squad in disarray under Rafa Benitez, Zidane has brought Real Madrid back to its accustomed place atop European football.
“When you have players of this caliber you can really achieve a lot,” Zidane said. “It’s positivism. Is that how you say it? I believe a lot in work. We have the quality. Work is more important. That’s what we did. We all did a good job.”
Madrid’s 5-3 penalty shootout win over city rival Atletico Madrid in a Champions League final that finished 1-1 after extra time Saturday also brought Zidane back to the pinnacle of the game.
Having led France to World Cup and European Championship victories, Zidane also scored with a remarkable left-foot volley on the edge of the area to give Madrid its ninth European title in the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen. He also won the tournament as an assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti two years ago — also against Atletico.
Madrid president Florentino Perez went so far as to compare Zidane to the club’s legendary player Alfredo Di Stefano, who led the team to five consecutive European titles from 1956-60.
“I appreciate the president’s words. But Di Stefano is Di Stefano. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Zidane said. “I’m happy because I’m a part of this great club for a long time now. First as a player, then as assistant coach and now head coach. I really feel proud to be part of this big home.”
Zidane has had roles in Madrid’s ninth, 10th and 11th European titles.
“It’s the team of my life,” he said. “It’s the club that has made me the biggest in everything. It was and it will always be a great club. To be a part of this great club is something very special.”
After replacing Benitez in January, Zidane put his imprint on the squad by favoring the reliable Brazilian midfielder Casemiro over the more talented James Rodriguez.
Madrid finished the season by winning 15 of its last 17 matches and won its last 12 Spanish league games to finish only one point behind champion Barcelona.
“Since Zizou arrived things changed a lot. In the dressing room we were more united,” said Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, who scored the opening goal. “We had good times with Benitez, too. And bad times. But things are always more fun when you win.”
Zidane joins Miguel Munoz, Giovanni Trapattoni, Johan Cruyff, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola as the only men to have won the European tournament both as a coach and a player.
Zidane also follows Roberto Di Matteo, who in 2012 inherited Chelsea midseason and went on to win the Champions League.
“He had the fortune to coach one of the three best teams in the world — between Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said after losing his second final in three years to Madrid. “It’s always a privilege to be a champion.”
While Simeone is known for his highly defensive tactics, Zidane still seems to be developing his coaching style.
In contrast to Simeone’s animated antics on the sideline, Zidane often just observes his team with his hands in his pockets.
“It went our way but it could have gone either way,” Zidane said. “(Simeone) is a great coach and he has shown this throughout his career.”
Zidane has always been great — and now in more ways than one.