Real Madrid v Liverpool: Is the Champions League enough to save Zidane?
At any normal club, the prospect of winning a third Champions League in a row would represent a feat of immense magnitude. There would be improved contracts, museum tours, maybe even a statue or two to honour those responsible.
So why does it feel like Saturday's match in Kiev could be Zinedine Zidane's last in charge?
Of course, Real Madrid are not a normal club. They are, in many respects, European football's most demanding entity, ready to pull the trigger on any head coach who dips below the standards they consider acceptable.
Look at their previous two Champions League-winning coaches. They sacked Vicente del Bosque in 2003, a year after conquering Europe and days after lifting LaLiga, because president Florentino Perez said he looked "exhausted".
They dispensed with Carlo Ancelotti 12 years later, the man who delivered the fabled 10th European crown, because Perez felt they needed "a new impulse".
9 - Under Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid have never been knocked out in the Champions League, progressing in all nine of their two-legged Champions League ties as well as winning the two finals they’ve appeared in. Invincible. pic.twitter.com/Ahw2AzIS4L
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) 1 May 2018
Perez is undeniably a theme and it is not hard to imagine he could have sent Zidane packing much earlier this season, given their wretched title defence, if the former France star did not command such respect at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The fact is, Zizou's position looks more unsure than it ever has in his nearly three years in charge, and there is a chance that even beating Liverpool will not be enough to save him. If that happens, Perez would not be entirely blameless – no matter what his excuses might be this time.
The numbers say sacking Zidane would be ludicrous. Madrid have won 103 and lost only 16 of the 148 matches they have played under him in all competitions. They have scored 390 goals in that time, conceding 159, effectively giving them a rough average of a 3-1 win per game.
They have won back-to-back Champions Leagues, the first team to do so, as well as one LaLiga title, two UEFA Super Cups, two Club World Cups and one Supercopa de Espana. Even on the Madrid barometer, that's a spectacular return for under three years' work.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) May 18, 2018
'Work' – that seems to be the key to Zidane's method. When he took over a squad made deeply irritable by Rafael Benitez's tinkering, he made the players a simple bargain: work hard, then work harder, and results will follow. Even before the 2016 Champions League final, won on penalties against Atletico Madrid, Zidane told a pre-match news conference that the secret to victory was to "run, run and run".
That ethos permeated last season. Late, late goals against the likes of Sporting Gijon, Valencia, Real Betis and Las Palmas helped them to a first league crown since 2012. They blew away teams like Napoli, Bayern Munich and Juventus in the Champions League with second-half onslaughts. The notoriously volatile dressing room had become an example to the rest of the world in how not to give up a fight.
This term, that spirit of defiance has only just kept them going. Whereas in the past, the team's tactics and talent were almost beyond question and their mentality the sticking point, there has been a bizarre reversal. Madrid too often now look like a collective of exceptional footballers, hard-working and harder-minded, but thrown onto the pitch in a shapeless mass and expected to dig out a win.
Mario Mandžukić 2017
Vladimír Šmicer 2005
Zinédine Zidane 2002
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 21, 2018
There is no obvious blueprint, no system to make you think 'this is a proper Zidane team', the way fans of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola or, yes, Jose Mourinho might do. There are only so many times you can applaud the European champions for running when they are losing at Girona and Espanyol, drawing with Levante and being knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes.
The Champions League has kept their season alive and, with it, Zidane's prospects of a third full season in charge. They have already beaten the champions of France, Italy and Germany to reach this point, hauling their bedraggled-looking selves over the finishing line against the latter two. They believe in a God-given right to win these big matches and are favourites among many to do it against Liverpool.
But to build on that success, Madrid might need a fresher mind, a new perspective in the dugout. It would feel grossly unfair to many – but when has that stopped them before?