Conte was once a very strong candidate to take over at Real Madrid. If Zidane loses, ‘candidates to take over’ will be the hot topic of conversation for the rest of the week.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane needs a win tonight after just one point from two games
Madrid take on Inter, managed by Antonio Conte who has been linked with the Real hotseat
There is no middle ground. Occasionally, a coach survives not winning the European Cup by winning the league, but the tournament Madrid have won 13 times is what matters.
That’s why despite beating Barcelona last weekend and being eight points clear of them in LaLiga, it’s the fact that the team have only taken one point from a possible six so far in Group B that haunts them.
Being bottom of the pile after two matches is bad enough – still being there at the halfway point of the group stage is unthinkable.
‘The game is like a final but at this club there is a final every day. Everything we do is a final,’ said Zidane on Monday.
It was hard to know if he was just delivering the standard lines or even just being a little bit tongue-in-cheek: ‘I drive to the training ground, it’s a final; I have breakfast in the club canteen, it’s a final.’
He has a happy knack of getting the right performances in the biggest games. Perhaps it does him a disservice to call it a ‘happy knack’. And he faces a coach with a similar gift, who could have been sitting in his chair were it not for Sergio Ramos.
In October 2018, Julen Lopetegui was on a bad run having only taken over the previous summer – he lost the first Clasico of the season 5-1 and was out.
Asked about the possibility of a disciplinarian manager taking over, Ramos said: ‘You earn respect you don’t impose it.’
Sergio Ramos is thought to be a key reason as to why Conte did not get the Madrid job in 2018
Ramos may have had Jose Mourinho on his mind when he said it, but he had previously been asked directly about Conte and has always been accredited with an apparent dressing room veto to stop the Italian taking the job.
Instead Madrid turned to Santiago Solari and then back to Zinedine Zidane. Ramos got what he wanted: a diplomatic coach who would work with the players and not rule over them.
Conte remembers it differently. On Monday he spoke of the ‘couple of times’ he had been close to taking over and said: ‘I was grateful [for the interest] but I thought that the season had started and it would have been difficult. That is what I said when they called.’
Conte will not be on the list of possible replacements if Real Madrid do find themselves sitting with just one point from three games after tonight. Raul and Mauricio Pochettino are the two seen as most easy to bring in – one being out of work and the other already being at the club.
Mauricio Pochettino (L) and Raul (R) are the frontrunners should Zidane be given the boot
They were the two favourites two weeks ago before Zidane masterminded a win over Barcelona, a good but almost disastrous performance against Borussia Monchengladbach, and an impressive 4-1 win at the weekend.
He did ‘mastermind’ that Clasico win too – it didn’t just fall into his lap courtesy of players rising to the occasion.
He stretched the pitch with Vinicius and Marco Asensio and had his midfield three of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Fede Valverde taking turns to make runs from deep to support Karim Benzema through the middle. It created a threat that Barcelona could not deal with and from one such run – from Valverde – Madrid took the lead.
The tactic has had to be modified in the last two games because of the return of Eden Hazard. The Belgian cannot be asked to hug the touchline as Vinicius can but Madrid have stuck with the 4-3-3 that did the job against Barca.
Zidane masterminded a crucial win against Barcelona in LaLiga just over two weeks ago
Eden Hazard’s return means Zidane’s tactic against Barcelona has had to be modified recently
That gives Zidane a nice problem in midfield. He must leave out either former Balon d’Or winner Luka Modric, World Cup winner Kroos, Brazilian international Casemiro or the in-form Valverde.
As hard as it is for Zidane, because of his closeness to his so-called veterans being one of the foundations of his winning managerial style, it’s difficult right now for that odd-man-out not to be Modric.
The good news is that the ultra-professional 35-year-old is responding well. He was excellent at the weekend when he played 90 minutes in the victory over Huesca and he came on and scored the third goal at the Camp Nou seven days before.
‘We know what a player he is and what he does for the team,’ Zidane said. ‘There are a lot of games. Luka plays well every time he is on the pitch and for a coach to choose is the hardest thing.’
Luke Modric looks set to be left out of the Madrid midfield for the Inter clash on Tuesday night
Real Madrid, bottom of their group, need a win to kickstart their Champions League campaign
He hates leaving him out, but barring a surprise benching of Marco Asensio tonight the Croatian midfielder won’t start.
Madrid are feeling quietly confident. There is no Romelu Lukaku for Inter and Eden Hazard is starting to click with Benzema.
Madrid are ready for another final, going all-out to keep the narrative at: we can win the Champions League. And well away from: we need to change the coach.