MADRID (AP) — After a humiliating 7-3 loss to rival Atlético Madrid in a preseason friendly in the United States, Zinedine Zidane insisted his Real Madrid would be just fine once the real competitions began.
And he was right.
Almost year after that loss, Zidane and Madrid are celebrating the Spanish league title — the team’s first since Zidane returned as coach and the first since Cristiano Ronaldo left to join Juventus.
“We weren’t happy with what happened that day. When you concede seven goals, that stays with you, no matter what happens the rest of the season,” Zidane has said. “But you have to pick yourself up, and that’s what we did.”
Madrid sealed its record 34th league title with a 2-1 win over Villarreal at the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium on Thursday. The victory left Madrid seven points in front of second-place Barcelona with one round to go. Barcelona lost 2-1 to Osasuna at the Camp Nou Stadium.
The embarrassing loss to Atlético came a few months after Zidane was asked to return as coach to try to lift the club from one of its worst crises in years, having been eliminated early in knockout round of the Champions League and falling out of contention in the Spanish league.
Zidane had quit less than a year earlier after leading Madrid to its third straight Champions League title. He said winning this year's Spanish league felt better than the Champions League titles.
“The Champions is the Champions, but the Spanish league requires a tremendous effort for you to finish with the most points after 38 rounds," Zidane said.
It was the 11th trophy for the Frenchman with Madrid since taking over as coach for the first time in 2016.
The only previous league title was in 2017. Ronaldo left at the end of the following season, and since then Madrid’s only titles had been the Club World Cup in 2018 and the Spanish Super Cup this year.
With his ability to manage egos and keep an entire squad full of stars happy and performing well throughout the season, Zidane quickly turned things around and got Madrid back to the level it was playing at before he had left.
He successfully took advantage of the unplanned pandemic break to guide Madrid to 10 straight victories — the team’s best streak all season.
Players threw the coach into the air during the title celebrations on Thursday.
“Zidane has been key for us,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said. “He has guided this team. He has shown that he trusts all of his players. That doesn’t happen with all coaches. And we believe in him.”
Ramos was among the leaders when Ronaldo was in the squad, and his role only increased in the last couple of seasons.
He contributed with his experience on defense and showed his scoring ability in attack, becoming the defender with most goals in the history of the league.
He scored 10 goals this season, with half of them coming after the pandemic break. He took over from Ronaldo as the team’s main penalty taker and converted some decisive ones in recent matches, including in consecutive 1-0 wins against Getafe and Athletic Bilbao.
Ramos is Madrid’s second-best scorer this season behind Karim Benzema, who has 21 league goals and still has a chance of surpassing Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the league's golden boot award. Messi, who scored Barcelona's goal on Thursday, has 23 entering the final round.
Benzema, who scored twice against Villarreal, also finished with 21 league goals last season. The season before, with Ronaldo still as his teammate, he had five league goals.
The 32-year-old Benzema had also scored in each of the team’s previous two matches.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois put to rest any doubts that lingered about him after an up-and-down first season with Madrid. He was solid all year and is in position to dethrone Jan Oblak as the goalkeeper with the fewest goals conceded in the league. The Atlético Madrid goalkeeper had the best mark the last four seasons.
One of Courtois' great saves came at the end of Thursday's match to keep Villarreal from equalizing.
FORGOTTEN BALE AND RODRÍGUEZ
Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez were relegated to almost non-existent roles during the final stretch of the season. Bale didn’t play in the last six matches, while Rodríguez didn’t get any minutes in the last seven games.
Despite Zidane’s constant talk about how he “counts on everyone” in the squad, few expect the duo to remain at the club going into next season.
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