Heart Of Football

Zidane in good heart for Valentine's Day

Zinedine Zidane, a winner of everything he ever competed for as a player and as a coach, faces a Valentine's Day date in Madrid that will determine his future.

Real Madrid versus Paris St Germain at the Bernabeu. A perhaps fading Cristiano Ronaldo against a gifted, ambitious Neymar. And the Spanish media awash with speculation that Madrid president Florentino Perez is preparing both a managerial and player overhaul to shake up football.

Eight trophies in Zizou's two years as head coach, including unprecedented back-to-back Champions Leagues, are history now unless he motivates Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and all the rest to push their troubled season out of their system and put an end to PSG's billion-dollar team fuelled by the Qatari government.

"Yes, that's clear," Zidane answered when it was put to him that Real's season and his reputation rest on the Champions League.

"We know a big game is coming," he said. "We know who we are. We know the weapons we have, and that this can change very quickly."

He spoke of Ronaldo, who turned 33 last week, maybe being more motivated.

Is there anyone who does not know what CR7 can do, or did? The reigning Fifa Footballer of the Year still comes alive under the lights of the Champions League.

Harry Kane or Robert Lewandowski? Eden Hazard, David de Gea, or wait for it, Neymar to be the next audacious Bernabeu import?

He has scored nine times in six games in this season's tournament, compared to eight goals in 17 Spanish league games.

Sooner or later, age dims even the greats. It did Zidane, it will Ronaldo. The physical and mental sides of an elongated playing career catch up with every mortal, and it is telling that five of those Ronaldo goals since last autumn came from the penalty spot.

But Karim Benzema, his running companion (literally), has also turned 30, and has not looked fresh or motivated for some time. Gareth Bale's form has been more impressive, but the Bernabeu faithful wait nervously on Bale, wondering when his body will next let him down.

All the while, the Madrid media offers a global roll call of names destined to be the president's next "Galactico".

Harry Kane or Robert Lewandowski? Eden Hazard, David de Gea, or wait for it, Neymar to be the next audacious Bernabeu import?

It gets the tongues wagging in print and on TV screens. Terry Venables, a voice from the past, weighed in last week. In praising Kane's achievement of 100 Premier League goals for Spurs, the ex-Tottenham, ex-England and ex-Barcelona manager said in a signed column: "There is obviously talk of Real Madrid coming for Harry. I took Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes to Spain when I was manager at Barcelona, but I hope Harry stays here.

"We don't want another of our Premier League talents being used by Spain's big two."

No, Sir. Absolutely not. Do as I say, not as I did.

Venables now observes: "Spurs will have to match Harry's ambition and they will also need to move quickly with a contract offer. You can't ask Harry to settle for less, not for a player of his class."

Kane can increase his value if he scores against Juventus in Turin on Tuesday, and if the class players of Real do not have a Valentine's Day to remember.

President Perez has never shied from paying the price. Last summer's record capture of Neymar by PSG for €222 million (S$361 million) will not in the slightest deter Madrid, if Perez senses that Neymar is already seriously disenchanted with French football.

Perez would pay that much, and more, to get Neymar just as he sanctioned a then-world record of €77 million in 2001 to lure Zidane from Juventus.

Zizou delivered. Within a year, his immaculate volley won the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.

"In football, the successes are forgotten too quickly," said Claude Makelele, who was at Zidane's side in many of his triumphs for both France and Real, and who talks regularly to his old pal.

"The treatment Zizou is given has been unfair. He has the same values as a coach he had on the pitch. He's a leader and a worker. He never hides and he takes all of his responsibilities. Not everyone can help players like he has."

The president may think he knows some who might. Latest reports have Perez pitching for Joachim Low, although a week or so ago his gaze was on Mauricio Pochettino.

A Pochettino and Kane double? Tottenham would resist that all the way to the NBAD. In case you hadn't heard, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi has been Real Madrid's banker since 2014.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Zidane in good heart for Valentine's Day'. Print Edition | Subscribe