Real Madrid's UCL hopes ride on Zinedine Zidane finding the right combination up front
Zinedine Zidane slinked past a steward and disappeared down the tunnel when the final whistle sounded at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night. He knew what most of us watching knew; Real Madrid had dodged a bullet.
The Frenchman figured that while Real Madrid had done their job by qualifying themselves for the last four of the Champions League, they weren't part of the narrative any longer; at least not on the night. Zidane doesn't care much for narratives and loves when he's not a part of it. This particular script's final scene did not involve Cristiano Ronaldo's bulging muscles, or Real Madrid at all really.
As the credits got set to roll at the Bernabeu, we had a showdown between Gianluigi Buffon and referee Michael Oliver. Real Madrid became secondary. And Zidane had work to do.
The reason he disappeared down the tunnel was because he was far from happy with what he had just witnessed and because he knows he has problems that he is struggling to find answers for. The team is laden with talent but riddled with problems. It's better to have one obvious nadir opposed to several contenders and this Real Madrid side continues to offer up examples of their poor form.
They are not operating in a plug-and-play system and one change can mean an entire shift of system and style. They have several square pegs and an ocean of round holes and Zidane is faced with problems regardless of who he starts. It is intruding on their confidence and the lack of consistent minutes doesn't help either.
The synergy between Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Isco is way off and Bale was hauled off after an uninspiring 45 minutes. Zidane insisted that he changed Bale and Casemiro in order to alter the dynamic of the game. "I took Bale off because I had to make a change," he said after the game when the inevitable questions arrived, "I wasn't happy with the plan. It wasn't an issue with Bale or Case, but I had to make a change".
For all of Zidane's savvy in news conferences and his ability to answer endless questions about Bale and the rest, he is yet to figure out the gestalt psychology of this team. Maybe, just maybe, with Karim Benzema in his starting XI, the whole gets close to being as much as the sum of its parts. Zidane has been telling us for weeks and months now of Benzema's importance. Maybe he believed what he was saying, or was trying to coax his compatriot out of what he says is a "rough time of it" recently. Based on what we saw last night, the French manager does not see Bale as a striker, needs to accommodate Ronaldo's new life as a No. 9 and needs to adapt.
But make no mistake about it, Benzema's inclusion is not based on how good he is, it's based on how bad the alternative options are when they combine. The word "disconnected'" gets bandied about particularly when Isco and Gareth Bale play together and last night, it was on display.
It's quite telling too of Real Madrid's poor transfers that they have just one striker in Benzema to carry the load. The only other option, Borja Mayoral, wasn't even on the bench on Wednesday night, hasn't been for the last four European ties, and has a long way to go before convincing Zidane that he deserves more time on the field.
This squad was built for a certain place and time when Bale had the trust and confidence of the manager, when Ronaldo was a winger, when Benzema scored goals and Isco was happy to bide his time on the bench. They have evolved, changed roles both on the field and off it and Zidane is left with a brew of players who don't belong together anymore.
There is very little argument over Real Madrid's back four, midfield three, or Keylor Navas in goal -- although his end of season appraisal will be affected by last night and that could mean his position might not remain secure for long. The problem is in attack and how Zidane approaches his team selection. Bale is doing plenty in games that don't mean anything in the league, Benzema is doing nothing in the games that do and Isco has found his way back into the team based on his international form -- a side that plays a starkly different system to anything Zidane has tried with a completely different style of midfield and attack.
Real Madrid's whole is not as great as the sum of its parts anymore and Zidane has to tinker in order to get the best out of this squad. His meddlng during the year got Real Madrid back to being a functional side in La Liga. He will need to go back to the drawing board in Europe and even though they're a country mile away from their best, they are still in the semifinals of the Champions League. If Zidane can get over the next three games to seal another trophy, it will be his greatest one yet.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne