Real Madrid's La Liga hopes are over, time for Zidane to focus on the future
The Spanish sports press was unanimous on Monday, a rare occurrence indeed; Barcelona are now champions elect. Real Madrid's Andalusian mini-curse continued in La Rosaleda as Zinedine Zidane's team were held to a 1-1 draw by Malaga, a result that saw Luis Enrique's side open up a nine-point lead at the top of the table over their eternal rivals. The league, it seems, has sailed for another season.
Zidane said what he is expected to say after the match: "There are 39 points still to play for and we're going to keep going [...] You think that La Liga is lost, but I don't and certainly the players don't."
But history is not on Real's side. The Merengues have never overhauled a nine-point deficit to claim the Liga crown. Only one side has managed the feat, Barcelona in 1998-99, but they had 24 games to rake back the difference. Real have 13, including the visit of Atletico this weekend and a trip to Camp Nou, where Zidane's side will have to win 5-0 to redress the balance in the head-to-head stakes.
Barcelona's victory in Las Palmas on Saturday, meanwhile, was the side's 32nd game without tasting defeat.
While this is all rather bad news for Real Madrid the institution, it's not necessarily a huge setback for Zidane as manager. A second successive season without silverware has to be considered more likely than not and that alone should serve to strengthen the Frenchman's position come the summer.
Florentino Perez and his board cannot be immune from blame for the state of Real's squad. Zidane is. He is also not responsible for the side's league position, having inherited a side already four points adrift of Barcelona. The Cules' game in hand made it seven. Real dropped two points in Malaga but Barca won there by one goal and Atletico were beaten. Zidane, meanwhile, remains undefeated as Real manager. Under Rafa Benitez, Real dropped 17 points.
The question, of course, is to what extent Perez will back the man he chose to replace Benitez ahead of next season. Zidane may lack experience as a first team coach but when he took over Castilla the reserve side was it lowest ebb for some time, having finished 20th in Segunda in the 2013-14 season with 13 wins from 42 games.
In his first season in charge, after a difficult start, Zidane guided Castilla to sixth in Segunda B Group II, two points shy of the playoff places. This season, Zidane's record before he moved to the big chair was 10 victories, seven draws and two defeats. He left Castilla in second place, where they remain under Luis Miguel Ramis, who has overseen six consecutive wins. Credit to Ramis, but also to his predecessor.
Zidane clearly learned a fair bit under Carlo Ancelotti when he was assistant to the Italian in 2013-14, the Decima-winning season. The Frenchman also has the benefit of having played for the club during the Galactico 1.0 era. Zidane understands the game as well as anyone else and noted of Perez's decision to sell Claude Makelele and replace him with David Beckham: "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"
Zidane will have a good idea of what Real need to do in the summer to compete against Barcelona next season. He will also hold a trump card over the man with the paintbrush: the FIFA-imposed transfer ban hanging over the club may or may not eventually prevent Real from signing players for the entirety of 2017. Getting it right before next season has never been of more importance.
It was Zidane, after all, that recommended a practically unheard-of Lens defender to the club in 2011: the signing of Raphael Varane now seems nothing short of visionary.
In the meantime a weight of responsibility has been lifted from Zidane's shoulders in the league -- one that was never his burden in the first place. The Frenchman can use the rest of this season to plan for next; to instill his idea of how the team should play and to try out some new tactical ideas.
As well as Barcelona's pre-eminence in Spain, Real have suffered this season from a touch of predictability. Champions League qualification is all-but assured, with Villarreal five points behind Real and Sevilla eight points behind the Submarine. Zidane can concentrate on the Champions League and give it everything the club has at its disposal.
Rest Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Keylor Navas, Karim Benzema et al when Celta visit the Bernabeu before the Roma return leg. Do the same if the quarterfinals are reached. Play the fringe players more and weed out those who are unlikely to feature more regularly next season. If the transfer ban comes into effect, there won't be any room for passengers.
The league is gone. Zidane can turn that fact to his advantage if he so chooses. A solid run in Europe can salvage some pride this season. Starting to think about the next one now may lead to brighter prospects in 2016-17.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.