Zidane has sights firmly set on Bayern and UCL amid uncertain future
Football management really is a funny old game. Zinedine Zidane has been constantly questioned this season and consensus, not to mention recent history, suggests that his job security boils down to just three matches from April 25 onward.
If the Frenchman falls short in the Champions League, there will be few outside the personal office of Florentino Perez that agree sacking him is the obvious course of action. That was Carlo Ancelotti's fate when he failed to cross the Real president's palm with silver in the 2014-15 campaign, despite delivering the long-obsessed-over Decima just 12 months earlier.
When Leganes pulled off one of the major shocks in Copa del Rey history, Zidane conceded his employment beyond June was in doubt.
Athletic Bilbao did not even make the quarterfinals of the domestic cup, a competition they have won 23 times in their history, second only to Barcelona. Runners-up in 2008-09, 2011-12 and 2014-15, Athletic exited this season at the first hurdle, undone by third-tier Formentera over 180 minutes. The Balearic side had been promoted to Segunda B for the first time in their history just six months earlier.
Yet Cuco Ziganda has rarely faced the same level of criticism levelled at his counterpart on Wednesday, when Athletic visit the Bernabeu. He will though assuredly be seeking new employment in June. Expectations at San Mames are necessarily lower than the Bernabeu, but not significantly so; inspiring cup runs and an annual reservation at one European table or the other were benchmarks set by his predecessors.
This season, only the ineptitude of others has prevented Athletic -- one of three clubs never to have been relegated from Primera -- slipping into the relegation mire. Ziganda had the worst win ratio of any manager in Bilbao's history two months ago at 25 percent and has only slightly improved that to 28 percent since. A 2-3 home loss to relegation strugglers Deportivo La Coruna last weekend was the nadir.
In reality, club president Josu Urrutia was the architect of Ziganda's downfall. The Athletic manager had been a fine servant at San Mames during his playing career and is un hombre del club, which is a status of considerable importance in La Liga and even more so in Bilbao.
But a quick glance at his managerial CV should have been enough for even a casual observer, let alone Athletic's president, to note a crest at Osasuna more than a decade ago and an appointment destined to drown in the wave of Ernesto Valverde's considerable success.
A long-term injury to his most creative player, Iker Muniain, is a mitigating circumstance, but the jury on Ziganda has been firmly in since Europa League humiliation at the hands of Marseille.
The club's admirable player recruitment policy will remain unshakeable, but Urrutia might already have decided to look further afield for a new coach. There will be no shortage of applicants: Athletic enjoy the sixth-largest budget in La Liga and one of its finest academies.
Can Zidane's situation really be as precarious? A first Liga and Champions League double in 60 years last season set the bar high, and Real's title defence has been catastrophic. Yet the Real boss stands three games from unprecedented European glory -- 270 minutes that will define his Madrid future. Ziganda's might already be written, but he will hope to at least add an asterisk to a woeful campaign: beating Madrid at the Bernabeu for the first time in 13 years.
Zidane's eye will be firmly on Bayern Munich, and with a full week to prepare for the first leg, the XI he intends he use in the Allianz Arena will start on Wednesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were spared the trip to Malaga. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez were on from the off. That points to Zidane deploying a similar formation in Munich as he did in Turin, a 4-3-1-2 with Isco, who bossed the game in La Rosaleda, operating between the midfield and attacking lines.
Luka Modric is available again for Wednesday's game after sitting out the trip to the south coast as a precaution, and he will feature against Athletic. Karim Benzema, who did not start the return leg against Juve, might be relegated to the bench to allow Bale and Ronaldo to fine-tune for Bayern. Juventus caught Madrid on the hop in the Bernabeu simply because they had nothing to lose. Zidane adapted, switching Bale and Casemiro for Asensio and Vazquez at half-time. Bayern will not be so gung-ho in the opening leg in Bavaria.
On the other hand, Athletic have no reason for caution in the Bernabeu. Ziganda might have squeezed all youthful exuberance out of Inaki Williams and turned Aritz Aduriz into a striker as likely to move into space as a passenger on the Madrid Metro, but this represents a shot at some measure of redemption. For Zidane, as in every game since that Copa loss to Leganes, The Lions merely present an inconvenience.
Ziganda could, possibly, hook himself a lifeline in the Bernabeu. Zidane, again, will be considering larger fish.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.