Cardiff: Zinedine Zidane believes Cristiano Ronaldo’s inspirational leadership will be the decisive factor when Real Madrid bid for Champions League final history against Juventus on Saturday.
Ronaldo is firmly in the spotlight as Zidane’s side try to become the first club to win consecutive European Cup finals since AC Milan 27 years ago.
While some criticised Ronaldo for his erratic performances in Real’s Champions League final victories over Atletico Madrid, he still scored the winning penalty in last year’s showpiece and also netted in the 2014 title match.
Ronaldo has been in transcendent form once again this season, reaching 400 career goals for Real as the team won the Spanish title for the first time in five years.
And Zidane is adamant the 32-year-old Portuguese forward’s ferocious will to win is key to Real’s success because he sets such high standards that his team-mates feel obliged to keep up.
“He’s a good person, he worries about the others, and what’s really important is what he does professionally,” Zidane told a press conference at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday.
“He always wants more. Even if he is playing in a training session he wants to win there as well.
“He’s got something inside. He’s a born leader, especially on the pitch.
“What’s most important for me is he wants to win.”
Zidane has his own special place in Real’s storied history after scoring the winner in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, a triumph that marked the highpoint of the ‘Galacticos’ era at the Bernabeu.
But the former France star has no doubt Ronaldo, who has also won two La Liga titles and two FIFA Club World Cups with Madrid, will have proved himself to be the more valuable of the two Real legends by the time he retires.
Asked who was the better player, Zidane said: “Cristiano Ronaldo, no doubt, because he scores goals and that’s the most important.”
If Real win on Saturday, Zidane will be the first manager to win back to back European Cups since AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi in 1989 and 1990.
The 44-year-old has defied critics who claimed his soft-spoken personality would make it impossible for him to cope with a squad of fragile egos and the constant behind the scenes politicking in the club’s corridors of power.
Now Zidane is on the brink of an historic achievement he would have found impossible to imagine when he was a youngster kicking a ball around the streets of Marseille.
– Spectacular –
“If you had said I was going to live all of this when I was a child, quite frankly I would never have believed it, but I’m living it. I’m enjoying it all,” Zidane said.
“Myself and the players realise we are living something spectacular, something very special. It’s really something beautiful to play a final.”
Dealing with the pressure of chasing history is no burden for Zidane and his players.
“Real Madrid knows how to feed off this pressure. We are always living under this pressure,” he said.
“I’ve seen it as a player and as a coach. Everyone says we are favourites, but it’s a final, in one game anything can happen.
“We will do everything we can to win, but I’ve lost many times as a player in important matches. I know it’s possible.”
Zidane refused to reveal whether he will start Wales forward Gareth Bale, who has been struggling with calf and ankle problems for much of the season, or stick with in-form Isco.
But regardless of who features in the Madrid line-up, he doesn’t expect them to be faced with a defensive Juventus team.
“It’s going to be very open on both sides. Juve defend very well but it’s not just that, they attack also,” he said.
“I don’t want to say they have their best team ever, but they have very good offensive players.”