Zidane proves he's perfect for Real right now, Wenger's big risk, Inter mess
When Zinedine Zidane was appointed to replace Rafa Benitez back in January 2016, plenty were skeptical -- including yours truly. Boy, were we wrong. His first 17 months at the helm of the club have been close to unparalleled, and any concerns over his experience and personality have been blown away.
What about his lack of experience? Fact is, Real Madrid -- especially this Madrid -- is so different from any other club that a long track record elsewhere isn't quite as relevant. Far more important is knowing the club and its actors inside and out. And you're bound to pick up more than a thing or two in 15-plus seasons at the Bernabeu in a variety of roles. Particularly when -- like Zidane and unlike, say, Ryan Giggs -- you've seen 13 different managers come and go, some of them true coaching icons.
What about his personality? Yeah, he's still taciturn and withdrawn, qualities that aren't ideal for a show business job, but that inner rage that precipitated more than a dozen red cards in his playing career has either gone or been channelled into something far more productive. And that supposed lack of diplomacy or willingness to play political games seems a heck of lot less important when you're a resident legend.
"He doesn't talk much, though I imagine he talks more than before," Carlo Ancelotti, his old boss, told me in January. "But what matters is that when he does speak, people listen."
Whatever Zidane's doing is working.
Forget the results for a minute. Consider how the past 17 months have been a largely controversy-free period at Real Madrid. Sure, winning seems to drive all moaning underground but for a club where dirty linen often gets washed in public, Zidane has kept everything in-house. And that's a skill too.
Zidane did what many said could not be done at Madrid. Like demote James Rodriguez way down the pecking order to the point that he was in the stands for the Champions League final. Or introduce a late-season rotation system and get everyone to buy in at the expense of their personal stats. Or turn Casemiro, the ugliest of ducklings, into a midfield fixture.
Zidane has now won as many Champions League titles as Arrigo Sacchi, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Brian Clough, Ernst Happel, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Only Ancelotti and Bob Paisley have won more.
Does this mean he belongs in the company of the aforementioned? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe to be included in the pantheon you have to, at some point, build a team and do it across different clubs. But he's a great manager, perhaps the best possible manager, for Real Madrid right now. And that's who he is managing.
Can the Champions League be made competitive again?
Nine different clubs (out of a possible 20) have made the Champions League final in the past 10 years. You won't be surprised to learn that the list correlates neatly with the "Deloitte Money League" ranking of the world's richest clubs. The top four are all in there, as are seven of the top 11 and eight of the top 13. Inter are the only club to have reached the final in the past decade to be out of the top 13: they're 19th and, of course, they go there back in 2010, when they were spending freely with the best of them.
Talking polarisation and balance of power is a lot like beating a dead horse: nobody seems to care as the rich get richer. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said his organisation are aware of it and are studying countermeasures to make things more competitive.
That's great; we wait with bated breath. Because making this a more "open" competition without killing the golden goose or upsetting the moneyed elite is a Herculean task.
Wenger is taking a big risk
Arsene Wenger could have walked away from Arsenal on a relative high. Nine wins out of 10 to end the season and a third FA Cup in four years. Not exactly worthy of a mic drop finish, but not too shabby either. Instead, he chose to stay on or, better yet, his employers decided to let him choose to stay on.
Whatever you think of Wenger and whether or not he should have stuck around, consider that by staying, he's putting his rep on the line one more time. Not in terms of his legacy, but in terms of the fact that if the bottom falls out next year and he's hounded out -- or limps to a worse finish than this season -- he'll be branded with the "stuck-around-too-long" tag.
This is a sport that's very much about the present. He may not care -- either because he's deluded, as his critics say, or because he genuinely thinks he's the best option for the club he loves -- but not everybody has the guts to risk another season like this one (or worse).
Crucial summer for Barcelona
The stock description of Barcelona's new manager, Ernesto Valverde, is that he's a pragmatist (at least relative to those who came before him) and he's a safe pair of hands capable of negotiating the politics that envelop the Camp Nou. After 15 seasons on the job and at 53 years of age, he gets a crack at a super club and has probably done enough to merit it. He'd been linked to the job before and it's karma that he now gets a crack at it.
He'll need that pragmatic approach. Barcelona have a massive laundry list of issues to resolve, from Andres Iniesta's future, to bolstering the midfield, to making a decision on whether Sergi Roberto can play right-back to finally getting Lionel Messi his new contract.
As important as what Valverde does come training camp is what the front office does with the squad.
Can Spalletti restore Inter to greatness?
You wonder what the over/under is on when Inter get themselves a new manager. It's been nearly a month since the firing of Stefano Pioli -- and let's face it, it's been much longer than that since the hierarchy most likely decided they'd need a new boss -- and the job is still vacant.
Blame some of the lost time on the fantastical pursuit of Antonio Conte. Blame some more of it on the hiring of recruitment guru Walter Sabatini because, of course, if you have two of those guys (and Piero Ausilio is still around) you're bound to get better results since too many cooks never spoil the broth. Blame more of it on the fact that while owners come and go, this is still Inter.
Now, however, it's crunch time. The latest guy in the cross-hairs is Luciano Spalletti, fresh off Roma's second-place finish. Spalletti is a brilliant managerial mind who arguably missed out on the super club gravy train when he opted to join Zenit while his stock was highest. But he can also be prickly at times and needs the right sort of environment in which to work. How he'll deal with Inter's "more-is-better" court of jesters remains to be seen.
De Gea's fate lies with Mendes
Media reports in England suggest Manchester United have slapped a £66 million ($85m) valuation on David De Gea. And if, say, Real Madrid wanted to include Alvaro Morata in part-exchange, they'd be willing to value the Spanish striker at £43m ($55m), meaning Morata plus $30m would get you De Gea.
At first glance, it's all very reasonable. It's a huge fee in goalkeeper terms (the record is still the £32m Juventus paid for Gigi Buffon way back in 2001) but De Gea is still just 26 years old. If you get a decade of service out of him and his level doesn't drop, it's not a bad deal for Madrid. United, on the other hand, would be getting a big whack of cash or a somewhat lesser whack plus Morata, who is 24, can play as a first or second striker, has plenty of Champions League and big club experience and was hugely prolific in a limited role last year.
De Gea is from Madrid and has reportedly told Jose Mourinho he'd like to play for Real Madrid "at some point." So it's all very logical, yes?
What's less logical in all this is the fact that the guy who represents De Gea is also the same guy who represents Mourinho. Yes: super-agent Jorge Mendes is on both sides of this negotiation. He gets the task of making sure everybody is happy come August 31: De Gea, Mourinho, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
People seem to be shocked by the power of agents and middlemen -- and rightly so. But it's worth remembering that every shred of power these people enjoy comes from others. They are surrounded by, for lack of a better word, enablers. If you don't like how this ends up, don't blame Mendes. Blame the clubs and the players for tolerating such conflicts of interest.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.