Zinedine Zidane faces make-or-break month of April with Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane's position at Real Madrid is hardly under threat, but April will be a pivotal month in determining whether the current manager goes on to build a lasting legacy at the Bernabeu or becomes yet another victim of Florentino Perez's impulsive approach to hiring and firing.
The president has been busily consolidating power in his second term in the boardroom and although elections are looming this summer, Real Madrid has ceased to resemble anything like a supporter-owned republic under the construction magnate's rule. In all likelihood, Perez will run unopposed as he did in 2013 after El Presi's tweaking of the club statutes essentially precluded any name other than his even making the ballot sheet. On the day that "Brexit" became a reality, a "Prexit" is a more distant possibility than at any time during Madrid's 115-year existence.
In the interim, Zidane has the opportunity to cement his own status. Leading the side to Champions League glory in his first half-season in charge was a decent opening gambit but as Carlo Ancelotti can attest that is no guarantee of continued employment. Madrid remain in the driving seat in the league, two points ahead of Barcelona and with a game in hand at Celta. Deliver a first league title since 2011-12 and Zidane will be in the dugout next season. Enshrine Real Madrid as the first club to successfully defend the Champions League and Perez will hand his coach a suitably improved contract. Do both and Zidane will be awarded the freedom of the Bernabeu and the company credit card in perpetuity.
April holds the key to that golden hall and the cards have been dealt in Zidane's favour in La Liga. His squad is at practically full strength despite the international break and before facing Atletico in the Madrid derby on April 8 Real can limber up against Alaves at home and Leganes away while Diego Simeone's side face a tricky trip to Malaga and direct Champions League challengers Real Sociedad at home. After that, Madrid's only Liga date before the Clasico is a visit to relegation-threatened Sporting. Over the same period, Barca face Sevilla, Malaga and Real Sociedad, leaving Luis Enrique with few opportunities to rest key players. Moreover, all of Madrid's remaining games against the current top four during the run-in are at the Bernabeu.
Zidane was asked earlier this season if he considers his thus-far extraordinary tenure to be down to luck. The Real boss replied light-heartedly: "Yes, I'm lucky, but not only in football, I'm lucky in general. I've been lucky all my life."
Few but even the most blinkered of Madridistas could argue that the Champions League draw was anything but hugely kind last season. To reach the final -- and lose in a penalty shoot-out -- Atletico had to defeat both Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Real faced Wolfsburg in the quarters and were pretty fortunate to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg. Then Manchester City played against their strengths in their first semifinal in either format of Europe's elite competition.
Zidane's "luck" ran out when the draw was made for the 2016-17 quarterfinals, pitting Real Madrid against Bayern. Not only are the German side one of the most experienced competitors in the latter stages of the tournament in recent years, their record from 2011-12 reads winners, runners-up and three consecutive semifinals.
The tie also puts Zidane up directly against the vastly more experienced Ancelotti in a first competitive reunion of the former Bernabeu boss with the club that sacked him in 2015. The ramifications are obvious. When Perez announced that Real were dispensing of the Italian's services, he stated that he "could not go into details" about what exactly triggered the decision, adding that his position as president (and de facto sporting director) is "not an easy one."
Ancelotti will be more than happy to provide a few answers for his former employer. The likable Italian has been around the block too many times to be drawn into talk of revenge, but an uncomfortable point of discussion for Zidane and Perez beckons: if Ancelotti outfoxes his former assistant at the first time of asking, why was he sacked in the first place? Only Perez will be able to answer and the president can be expected to bunker down if Real are knocked out by the coach who delivered the Decima after more than a decade of failure.
It is Zidane who will be in the firing line in that eventuality. The Real boss avoided a potential Ides of March scenario by negotiating his side's trickiest remaining away game at San Mames before the international break. Victories in the derby and the Clasico will strengthen his position considerably but failure to guide Madrid to the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 2010-11 will lead to metaphorical knives being drawn.
Of one thing Zidane can rest assured: Perez won't offer his own back to absorb the blows if his coach falls short in both La Liga and Europe.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.