Friday, December 11, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (3) - THAT ZIDANE VOLLEY

In the summer of 2001, the Galactico era at Real Madrid entered a new phase. Twelve months earlier, Real had pulled off an incredible coup by purchasing Luis Figo from hated rivals Barcelona, to join great players (and great egos) such as Roberto Carlos and Raul. But nothing compared to the capture of Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman who had been undeniably the top footballer in the world since he led his country to 1998 World Cup glory. Zidane cost 46 million squids, a world record fee by a distance, but he fitted the bill; he was the best there was, so Real Madrid had to have him.

When he signed for Real, Zidane was 29 years old, and at the peak of his powers. In truth, he had already achieved about as much as he could with Juventus - two Serie A championships, plus a run of close-but-no-cigar moments in the Champions League, including two final defeats. Italian football was beginning to fall behind England and Spain at club level (a trend that continues even now) and if Zidane was to win the one trophy eluding him - he was, of course, a World Cup and European Championship winner at international level - he would have to leave Turin. In a team with the current World Player of the Year, Luis Figo, a lethal striker in Raul, and one of the best young keepers around, Iker Casillas, Zizou would not get a better chance.

Not all went to plan for Real and their ambitious (to say the least) chairman Florentino Perez. They had been La Liga champions in 2000-01, but even with Zidane in harness, they slipped back to third in the table the following campaign - its incredible to think that Valencia, under Rafa Benitez, pipped Deportivo La Coruna to the title, whilst Barcelona came in a miserable fourth. But Real Madrid's mandate was the Champions League. Historically, its previous incarnation, the European Cup, had been won so often by the legendary side of the 1950s, with Di Stefano and Puskas leading the charge, that there seemed little point in moving the trophy out of Spain. After a thirty year barren period, the Madridistas won it once more in 1998 (defeating a Juve side containing Zidane) and again in 2000. If the galacticos were to go galactic, they needed to win it again.

And in May 2002, they were back in the final, to be played at Hampden Park. Hampden was a location special to the hearts of Real; it was the place of their greatest triumph, the almost mythical 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the final of 1960. Puskas scored four, Di Stefano a mere hat-trick, in front of 135,000 fans. And forty-two years on, Real Madrid once more faced German opposition, in the fairly unheralded Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen were a solid side, but their stars, German international midfielder Michael Ballack and Brazilian defender Lucio, were nothing on what their opponents had. But they had been good enough to knock Manchester United out in the semi-finals, and they were good enough to level things up through a Lucio goal after Raul had pounced to give Real an early lead.

But in the dying seconds of the first half, the Spanish side launched one more attack before the half-time whistle. Roberto Carlos, always more interested in attacking than defending from his left back role, sped down the left wing to try and reach a long ball. He arrived just before the full back, but succeeded only in launching the ball high into the night sky. Raul and his strike partner, Fernando Morientes, had moved into the penalty area anticipating a cross, taking the defence with them. The ball instead began to return to earth towards the "D". Zidane had arrived there, with no defenders tracking him.

The ball took such an age to drop that it almost appeared like slow motion. Zidane watched the ball all the way down, and wrenched his left leg to the height of his shoulder, where his instep met the ball, turning the play from slow motion to fast forward as his shot rocketed past the goalkeeper into the top corner. What a technique. What a goal. What an occasion to score on.

And it was his weaker foot.

Any team would have been stunned by that strike. Leverkusen showed considerable spirit in fighting back in the second half, only to be denied by desperate defending and a string of saves. The immaculate volley proved to be the winning goal. Zidane had his Champions' League medal. It would prove his pinnacle, and that of Real's - while the signing of Ronaldo the next summer brought another league title, neither he nor later arrival David Beckham could take them back to another final. Zidane, meanwhile, had that summer's World Cup wrecked by injury, and never quite looked the same player again, at least apart from his indian summer at Germany 2006. More of that later...


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