MADRID: Zinedine Zidane risked tarnishing his record by diving back into the Real Madrid job 10 months after resigning, but in taking the team to the brink of winning the La Liga title in his first full season back, he has proved the perfect man for the job.
If his side beat Villarreal at home on Thursday it would be their 10th consecutive win since the coronavirus stoppage and would seal the club's 34th league title, their first since 2017 when Zidane was also in charge.
In spite of a remarkable record of nine trophies in his first spell with Real including three consecutive Champions League crowns, Zidane was still often dismissed by some as little more than a smiling motivator.
He has been referred to in the Spanish media as an "alineador", doing little more than picking a starting 11 from one of the world's most talented squads.
His success has also often been put down to being blessed with good fortune.
But this season Zidane has proved to be a superb manager in every sense.
Key to the team's success has been the bolstering of the defence, which let in 46 goals last season under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, before Zidane was persuaded to make a shock comeback in March 2019.
Real continued to look shaky in defence as they shipped six goals in their first four matches this season, but they responded by keeping 10 clean sheets in their next 10.
Their defence has got even better since the coronavirus stoppage, conceding three goals in nine matches and keeping five consecutive clean sheets for the first time since 2008.
They now boast the best defensive record in Europe.
"Even as someone who prefers to play exciting attacking football, the defensive aspect is the most important thing right now," Zidane said.
"And we have a big advantage in that we have a great defence but above all, every player is committed to what we are doing. Defending is not about four or five players, it's down to everyone."
The coach has also overcome a series of obstacles.
He was in deep trouble when his side were thrashed 3-0 by Paris St Germain in September then beaten by promoted Mallorca in October, as Spanish media speculated he could lose his job and be replaced by a then unemployed Jose Mourinho.
But the coach weathered the storm by leading Madrid to an unbeaten run of 15 league games.
Zidane has also had to grapple with serious injuries, such as losing Spain winger Marcos Asensio for 11 months due to knee surgery, while star signing Eden Hazard's season has been plagued by ankle problems.
The Frenchman also chose to mostly overlook costly world- class talents such as Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, instead putting his faith in teenage Brazilian forwards Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr. plus Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde, 21.
Zidane's use of his entire squad is evidenced by having 21 different goalscorers in La Liga, while he has also rejuvenated senior players who had been widely dismissed as past their best, including Luka Modric, Marcelo and Isco.
"Zidane is fond of all of us and we all feel important in the team," said midfielder Casemiro.
"It makes me laugh when people say he is just lucky, he is making history with this club and it's an honour to have him as a coach, he's the best."
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)