Zinedine Zidane proves managing skill, keeping Real Madrid fresh for finales
After Sunday's 4-1 win over Sevilla, the temptation to believe that La Liga will end up in the hands of Zinedine Zidane's club is strong. Away matches against Celta Vigo and Malaga -- playing for nothing at this point -- are all that remain and do not look that threatening, and the fact that Real Madrid don't even need six points to clinch the title, but four, makes things slightly easier.
Some fans are already celebrating a La Liga title and planning for the Champions League final in Cardiff. But if we've learned something over the years, it is that the final few fixtures in the domestic tournament are extremely hard to predict. Celta and Malaga have both defeated Barcelona at their respective stadia this season, and will not want to look guilty of a lack of effort in the remaining matches of the domestic campaign.
Zidane knows that he needs to stick to what he's done well so far. An amazing 20 players in the squad have featured in at least 1,000 minutes of football this season, something unprecedented and that shows how inclusive his method has been. The rotation policy implemented by the French manager has allowed key actors such as Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo to arrive in these final matches in spectacular shape, as they've both rested longer than in any previous term at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Therefore, the rotations will continue, at least in Vigo. We've recently seen some cracks in the fantastic atmosphere between coach and squad, as Alvaro Morata stormed off the pitch when he was subbed against Sevilla, while James Rodriguez very clearly bid farewell to the Bernabeu when he was replaced in the same match. While Morata is obviously unhappy for his lack of minutes and could look elsewhere to get a starting job with another top club, James seems destined to the red side of Manchester, as various statements from people close to the player have insinuated since this week started.
Complaints and frustration were bound to appear, but Zidane won't change his approach, although that may very well cost him when trying to put together a squad as deep as this one for the next season. The bench's depth and his rotations have been the key to the team's good form in the final matches of the season, but if Morata and James leave, those rotations look a lot more difficult in both midfield and the front trio.
It's hard to predict how Zidane will select his line-ups for these final two matches in La Liga. Back in shape after great performances versus Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, Keylor Navas will start in both. That's as much as any sensible analyst would risk to state. Anything can happen in the remaining positions, including a third consecutive start for Danilo -- something that seemed unthinkable at this stage of the season.
The key for Zidane is to keep doing what he's done so far. His decision-making has brought Real Madrid to the final three matches of the season in an excellent position to win two titles, and that is exactly what every supporter should demand from him. Not simply silverware, but the ability to compete for top titles by leveraging the spectacular group of players he's got right now.
With not only the results, but especially the way the team has played most top-level matches, Zidane has earned the right to be trusted. Since he took over in January 2016, the team's performance in all competitions is outstanding, and titles tend to follow when Real Madrid looks as solid as they do right now.
But even if the club finishes the season empty-handed, this year has already been fantastic. They've confirmed that they've found a solid coach, who knows well the team and the environment. They have seen the team perform every week. They have forgotten previous moments of doubt to recover their swagger and compete as a tight unit in most top-level matches.
Real Madrid fans tend to be extremely demanding in terms of success. Even if they are, for the most level-headed section this is already a successful campaign. Now the team only needs to finish with a bang.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.