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Zidane's treatment of Lucas, Asensio helps revive Real Madrid

Whether or not Real Madrid now go on to shred records by winning their third straight Champions League title, we've already learned something important and impressive about Zinedine Zidane over the last few weeks.

Moreover, I would guess that this elegant, winning, admirable Frenchman has learned the same vital things about himself. The clearest evidence came from Madrid's two principal heroes in the Parc Des Princes on Tuesday: Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio.

No, nobody has forgotten that football is a team game and, yes, the club could also send hero-grams to Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro, Raphael Varane, Keylor Navas; the list is long.

But when a manager benches Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale on a potentially season-ending, night and the "kids," who are charged with accepting that level of responsibility, rise to the challenge in Rolls Royce-style, then they are the heroes of the moment.

Here's the proposition: Lucas and Asensio have, for many weeks, represented a significant proportion of what has gone wrong during the Spanish champions' odd, unbalanced season.

But the fact that Zidane, still a junior coach despite all his playing experience, has known how to recuperate them and bring them to the boil at the right time, while coping with the pressure he has been under, marks him down as an exceptional man-manager and campaign organizer.

Take Lucas. The ultimate team man, he is diligent, fit, strong, talented, reliable and has no wish to be the star; a guy whose qualities most elite managers would pay a fortune to possess. A prime example came against Atletico in the 2016 final when, on for Karim Benzema, Lucas powered through 43 minutes of regular- and extra-time. Then he stepped up and nervelessly slotted Madrid's first penalty of the shootout.

Twelve months later, though, for whatever reason and despite having played 10 times in that season's competition and laid on the (decisive) third goal for Ronaldo in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal, Zidane could not find a place for Lucas in his match day squad for the final.

The impact was too much for the player to assimilate quickly or easily and this season, when Madrid needed his regularity and reliability even more, having sold James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata and with Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral not stepping up, Lucas was posted missing.

In short, his nose was out of joint. He felt undermined and betrayed and it showed. The result? By Nov. 25 he had completed 90 minutes in La Liga just twice. In the Champions League? Once.

But, somehow, and thanks in no small part to Lucas for his performance resurrection, Zidane has managed to solve a problem that he created. From an attitude of "we have too many players, Lucas will get over it," Madrid's boss has rebuilt trust and respect.

Zinedine Zidane has not had an easy season but Real Madrid remain in contention to win a third-straight Champions League.
Zinedine Zidane has not had an easy season but Real Madrid remain in contention to win a third-straight Champions League.

Ask any manager at the upper level of the game and they'll tell you that their biggest headaches are not caused by the opposition, their employers or the media, nor stress, relegation or significant others, who might complain that "you're never here!"

It is always the players. Just like school teachers whose favourite joke is "this would be a great job without the pupils," it is people-management, plus coping with the many idiosyncrasies within a group of 20 people, which usually befuddle, break and then defeat a team manager.

And yet, while his own world seemed to slide out of control as Madrid stumbled in La Liga and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey, Zidane reconnected with his winger. For the last few weeks, the tenacious Lucas has been second to only Ronaldo in terms of importance to his club, acting as a constant pressing / tackle / assist / goalscoring machine.

It is largely thanks to that fact that the holders are in the quarterfinal draw.

Just picture Lucas crossing, off his weaker foot but to absolute perfection, so Ronaldo could nod home the opening goal in Paris.

And for the goal that made it 2-1? It was Lucas who pressed and robbed possession in midfield to start the move, before he lost his man with an Olympic-speed sprint to overlap and provide the cross that caused the mayhem from which Casemiro scored to finish the tie.

The rest of this "Zidane the Player Whisperer" tale revolves around Asensio.

Just like the beginning of last season, Spain's Golden Child was buzzing when 2017-18 began. There was a splurge of great goals, notably against Barcelona and Valencia, plus the impression that Asensio had come of age.

Then followed months when not only did that impression start to wither on the vine, but it was totally unclear as to why Asensio was seen as part of the answer to Madrid's chronic performance problems.

But it is clear that Zidane has both understood and improved his pupil of late. This time last season, Asensio rose to the challenge of a daunting match programme and became a key Madrid asset. One year on, an identical scenario is playing out.

He is favoured ahead of Gareth Bale, his explosive, inventive brilliance turned the first leg of the PSG tie and his killer pass -- the space for which was carved out by brilliant Benzema movement, please note -- for the first goal on Tuesday was that of a team leader. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old is also putting in a shift defensively.

Both heroes of this very French romance and objects of Zidane's adoration also hit the post at the Parc Des Princes, meaning that the aggregate score could easily have been utter humiliation for PSG, rather than just an embarrassing 5-2.

Have we learned, over those 180 minutes, that Zidane is now a brilliant tactician and strategic reader of a match? Have we learned that some of the questions, asked over his role this winter, are nothing more than melted snow?

I don't think so. He is still at the early part of a learning journey that even the greatest coaches will tell you is a long, daunting and potentially never-ending quest for knowledge, in which victories banish the nightmare of doubt and that feature a search for constant professional development.

But one thing has been proved beyond any question, given the evidence of the previous two seasons and this one: When it comes to adverse personnel situations within his playing squad, Zidane can accept, assess, unpack and turn them around, then squeeze the maximum from the talents available to him.

Some fountains of tactical knowledge might continue to sneer at Zidane but I will sneer right back. While that side of his CV is being forged in the heat of battle, this footballing maestro continues to demonstrate that he has the single-most important talent any manager can possess: The ability to teach, inspire and convince those under him to reach the peak of their talents.

And that elevates Zidane into the company of the greats.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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