“It will of course be special to play Juventus because they were a club very important to me as a player, and a club that also gave me everything. Now I am with Real Madrid, the club of my life.”
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane made the statement after his side defeated derby rivals Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals to book a date with the Old Lady at Cardiff. To create history by becoming the first manager to win the coveted trophy twice in a row, Zidane has to go against his own past – Juventus, the club that kick started his early career as a footballer.
One of the best midfielders of his era, the 23-year old Zidane moved to Juventus in 1996 from Ligue 1 side Bordeaux. At a time when Serie A was the most dominant league in Europe, Juventus were just crowned as the Champions of Europe when the Frenchman moved to Turin. During his five-year stint with Bianconeri, the midfielder did it all – won league trophy in 1996 and 1997, became FIFA World Player of the year twice and also won two Intercontinental Cups. What remained elusive from Zidane’s cabinet was the much coveted Champions League trophy.
Despite reaching two consecutive finals in 1996-97 and 1997-98 season, Zidane failed to bring the trophy back to Turin, beaten in 1997 by German side Borussia Dortmund by 3-1 with Scottish midfielder Paul Lambert closely marking him on the field. The very next year, it was Real Madrid itself that stomped on Frenchman’s hopes of lifting the trophy after Predrag Mijatovic scored the winner for the Spaniards.
Twenty years later, the stage is set for a similar final; Real Madrid vs Juventus for the Champions League final. But this time, Zidane is on the opposite side – no longer a player, but as a manager. Talking about the 1997 defeat in a recent interview, the France legend described it as “tough” moment. “Moments like that are tough and sad, but they’re part and parcel of any footballer’s career and you’ve got to accept them. I’m just happy I got to win the competition later with Real Madrid,” he said.
The midfielder won the trophy for Real in his first year at Madrid back in 2002, with an iconic volley kick against Bayer Leverkusen. His career at Juventus came to a standstill, with fans losing patience with his raw attitude. The controversial end to Old Lady’s 2000 Champions League campaign against Hamburg in the group stages came with Zidane receiving a red card for head-butting a player. A year later, he signed with Real as the most expensive buy at the time.
Zidane’s move set in place chance for new crop of players to come in for Bianconeri, including defender Lilian Thuram and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon from Parma and Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved from Lazio. While Nedved went on to establish himself as the perfect replacement for the French star, becoming one of the fans’ favourite, winning Ballon d’Or in 2003, and taking the club to several title victories, Buffon became the loyal guard for the side.
When Zidane’s Madrid takes on Massilmiliano Allegri’s Juventus at Cardiff on Sunday, 40-year old Buffon remains the biggest threat to his hopes. The Italian goalkeeper was the key figure for Italy in 2006 World Cup victory, attaining most clean sheets in the tournament (5) and dashing France’s chances in the penalty shootout in the final. His goal saving form has continued this season in UCL, with him conceding only one goal in last seven games in the European tournament.
The steely defence of Old Lady, comprising of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, form the perfect duo at the centre back to partner with Buffon. Three-time Champions League winner Dani Alves on the right-wing, who has been in tremendous form in recent months, remains yet another recognisable opposition for Real Madrid. But for Zidane, the prime focus reamains the 20-year old Paulo Dybala. The French manager singled out the rising Argentinian forward as the danger man. “Yes, (Dybala) is the threat number one. All are very good, but Dybala is one of the best,” Zidane said in an interview.
Uruguayan International Paolo Montero, who played with Zidane in the final against Real in 1997, in a recent interview said the match is a chance for Juventus to settle score against the Spanish side. “Juve to me look very strong defensively, and very efficient in that even if they only get a few chances to score, they convert them,” Montero said, adding that Los Blancos has a knack of winning finals. “But history has shown that Real are made for finals, because they have kept on winning,” he said.