Antonio Conte might have been in the Real Madrid dugout for Tuesday’s Champions League game against Inter were it not for the five words spoken by Sergio Ramos in October 2018.
“Respect is earned, not imposed,” Ramos said, when asked about the prospect of a hard-line coach like Conte taking charge.
His answer was taken as a rejection of Conte’s methods and a rebuke to the idea that Real Madrid’s dressing room was in desperate need of a shake-up.
Until then, Conte, now in charge of Inter, had been the overwhelming favourite to replace Julen Lopetegui, who had just overseen Madrid’s 5-1 defeat by Barcelona in the Clasico and a day later would be sacked.
Instead on the Monday, the day after Ramos spoke to journalists at Camp Nou, the deal was off.
Santiago Solari was appointed and lasted less than five months before Zinedine Zidane returned in March to a mixture of surprise and relief from a club tired of upheaval and crisis.
The reaction to Conte’s appointment would have been very different, even if the theory that Ramos’ comments spooked president Florentino Perez have been challenged by Conte himself.
“The job at that time was a hot potato,” Conte told Gazzetta dello Sport a few months later. “There was a possibility but I don’t like starting mid-season, I prefer to work from the beginning.”
Even if Conte believes the decision was more his than Madrid’s, there was no doubt he was seen as something the team needed, perhaps still need, but would not accept.
Conte’s intensity, discipline, work ethic, attention to detail and relentless approach were seen as incompatible with Madrid’s squad of ageing stars, supposedly resistant to the new ideas of an unyielding coach.
But almost exactly two years on, as Zidane’s Real get set to face Conte’s Inter, Madrid are still pending the revolution Conte might have initiated.
Quality additions to drive a new era and younger players to adopt a more modern style are still on the agenda if Madrid want to regain their supremacy in Europe.
Nobody could argue Zidane’s re-appointment has not been a success. He targeted La Liga as the one trophy he wanted to win last season and delivered it as Madrid outlasted Barcelona to secure only their second league title in eight years.
Tough decisions lie ahead
It was a huge achievement, not just because of the club’s recent underachievement domestically, but because of where Zidane found Madrid when he took over and where he took them.
And yet few would argue either that Madrid’s standing has dipped.
They had enough to see off a collapsing Barcelona and a recovering Atletico Madrid last term but were outclassed over two legs by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Champions League.
Even this season, they sit bottom of Group B after a loss to Shakhtar Donetsk and draw away at Borussia Monchengladbach, making victory on Tuesday all but essential.
In the side will likely be Karim Benzema, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane – the spine that Zidane relied on in his first spell and so impressively rejuvenated in his second.
Zidane had no choice but to stick with them again, as the coronavirus pandemic left Madrid strapped for cash and unable to sign a single player in the summer transfer window for the first time in 40 years.
Conte might not have been so diplomatic given his public demands for reinforcements were a regular feature of his time at Chelsea and now Inter, who signed six players in the summer, including Alexis Sanchez, Achraf Hakimi from Madrid and Arturo Vidal from Barcelona.
Conte would likely have been less forgiving when Madrid finished that 2019-20 season with a whimper and less loyal to ageing players who looked like their best years were behind them.
Yet at some point soon, Madrid will have to take those tough decisions Conte was almost appointed to make.
They might even need a more drastic, dynamic coach than Zidane to execute them.