Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane’s week took a further turn for the worse on Friday as he tested positive for Covid-19, following on from an embarrassing loss in the Copa del Rey which has sparked fresh concerns about the club’s present and future.
Madrid confirmed on Friday that Zidane had tested positive. He will miss his side’s trip to Alaves in La Liga on Saturday as they seek a return to winning form following back-to-back Cup defeats.
Humiliated by third-tier Alcoyano on Wednesday, a week after being outfought and largely outplayed in the Spanish Super Cup by Athletic Bilbao, Madrid find themselves in another slump.
Their season might well finish without a trophy, with Atletico Madrid marching on in La Liga and Europe’s elite stretching the gap even further away from Spain’s once formidable trio in the Champions League.
But more worrying is that this appears to be a squad in desperate need of renovation and a team shorn of the strengths that took them to the title only six months ago.
The question is whether Zidane is the person for a rebuild, or even if he wants to be. Asked if he still has the backing of the players on Wednesday, Zidane said: “I believe so, you have to ask them. We’ve done good things this season, apart from the last four games. Now we have La Liga and the Champions League and we have to work.
“Whether my message gets through, you have to ask them, I can’t answer that.”
Zidane’s numerous successes have always been built on a solid defence, a dependable core and a relentless will to win that meant close games became narrow victories and pressure brought a reaction.
The Frenchman, although he will have to watch from afar, needs another reaction now, starting at Mendizorrotza against Alaves. When his position came under scrutiny twice earlier his season, the team responded by winning the Clasico at Camp Nou in October, and later by rattling off six straight victories in December.
The difference this time is not just the scale of the failure against Alcoyano — who have not played in the top flight in 70 years — but that it left Zidane accused of ignoring the future.
His reliance on a select core was underlined by the poor performances of fringe players such as Isco, Marcelo and Eder Militao, who looked short of sharpness and, perhaps, motivation.
Even more jarring for those higher up the club may have been the struggles of Vinicius Junior, Fede Valverde and Alvaro Odriozola, youngsters once circled as players who could be part of a new era.
And what about those not there? Luka Jovic was sent back on loan to Eintracht Frankfurt and scored twice for them in 28 minutes.
Or Martin Odegaard, who was recalled early from his loan at Real Sociedad only to be left searching this month for another exit. Sergio Reguilon is at Tottenham, Dani Ceballos at Arsenal.
Zidane has decelerated the transition, perhaps because by relying on the old guard Real beat Barcelona to the league last term.
When Zidane demanded change in summer 2019, his first transfer window after coming back, the club that failed to deliver.
Eden Hazard, Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Militao and Rodrygo were signed for around 300 million euros but only Mendy at left-back has consistently improved the first team.
Since then the pandemic has strangled the club financially, meaning there were no signings last year, and the price of failing to update grows ever more costly.
Zidane has always been trusted to pull Madrid out of a mess but never to build something new. When they won the title last season, that papered over cracks, a testament to his ability to manage and motivate but the need for renewal remained.
Zidane wanted change in exchange for coming back. The change the club is now pondering is their coach.