MADRID (AP) — Zinedine Zidane always seemed to have the answers when he was on the field, and he’s proving to be a pretty good tactician as a coach, too.
The former Real Madrid midfielder, now in his third season in charge of the Spanish team, made all the right moves against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, knocking out the favored French club 5-2 on aggregate after winning 3-1 in Madrid and 2-1 in Paris.
“It was a perfect performance,” said Zidane, who has led Madrid to the last two Champions League titles. “We put pressure on our opponents and delivered a really good display. It wasn’t easy, but we all played well. We deserved to advance to the next round.”
Trailing 1-0 in the first leg, Zidane turned the match around by replacing Casemiro and Isco with Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio. They helped Madrid make a crucial late run that led to two goals and the victory.
Zidane was without regular starting midfielders Luka Modric and Tony Kroos for the second leg in Paris, and the coach surprisingly included Vazquez and Asensio in the starting lineup, leaving Gareth Bale and Isco on the bench. The changes added speed to Madrid’s attack, which constantly threatened PSG. The first goal at Parc des Princes came off a cross by Vazquez to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, the Champions League’s all-time leading scorer, is peaking just as the tournament enters its decisive stages, having scored 11 goals in his last six matches in all competitions. The Portugal forward has scored in every Champions League match this season, reaching 12 goals in eight matches, five more than his closest challengers.
“We are talking about the best player in the world,” said Casemiro, the Madrid midfielder who scored the team’s second goal in Paris. “We need to keep enjoying his goals and his performances.”
Things are not going so well in the Spanish league, however.
Madrid arrived for the highly anticipated series against PSG surrounded by doubts after being eliminated in the Copa del Rey and falling out of contention in the league. Despite his success in Europe, Zidane has been under pressure and his job was on the line.
Meanwhile, all the hype was with PSG, the rich French club led by Neymar and looking to show it could contend among the very best in Europe. It didn’t happen.
“This was a really good stage for us to again make a statement in our favorite competition,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said.
Still under Zidane, the “Kings of Europe” are back and on track for a record 13th European title.
“The Champions League was a very important goal for PSG, but with our experience we imposed ourselves in both matches,” Madrid defender Raphael Varane. “It was a key series. If we keep playing with this attitude, we will go far.”
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