The Z factor

Zidane gives instructions to his players.
Zidane gives instructions to his players. / EFE
  • Real Madrid appear to have the advantage in the battle for the title as serial winner Zinedine Zidane proves his worth once again

It's looking increasingly likely that La Liga's run-in will be decided by the club that has the "X Factor". Or, to be more accurate, the "Z factor".

A whole season ago, Zinedine Zidane returned to Real Madrid with 11 games remaining and discovered a team that had no cohesion or direction. Spin forward a year and he's guiding a group of players through an 11-game post-lockdown mini-season which could lead to the title.

In another historic battle with Barcelona, Real Madrid have the edge on the head-to-head meetings... but the real advantage may turn out to be the coach.

Zidane inherited a tired and dishevelled set of players, unrecognisable from the team that had claimed a third successive Champions League title under his leadership. He's kept the spine of the side - Thibaut Courtois, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro and Karim Benzema - and boosted it with verve and passion. Fede Valverde has fully graduated as an energetic midfielder, Ferland Mendy is challenging Marcelo, and Vinícius Júnior has emerged as an incredible talent.

The latter is a bonus for Real. Still only 19, he arrived from Brazil with the usual fanfare that accompanies "the next big thing" yet took time to settle. There were even stories that his time was up earlier this season. It was feared he could be the new Robinho who never fully realised his potential.

There was a sign when he scored in El Clásico and then, during the enforced break, he decided to take a leaf out of fellow countryman Neymar's book. That can often be a dangerous and ill-advised thing to do. But, on this occasion, it was wise to copy the chapter where Neymar employs his own chef and personal trainer. He's emerged with the body of an Olympic athlete and the attitude of a gold medallist.

Coupled with Marco Asensio's return from a long injury and Eden Hazard finding full fitness, Real Madrid look to have undergone a complete reboot. It has taken the pressure off Luka Modrić who looks re-energised now he's no longer expected to lead the midfield at the age of 34.

Over at Barcelona, there doesn't appear to be quite the same unity. Their style was based on blitzing the opposition into submission early in the game and finishing business before the last thirty minutes. Now, they are just edging matches and relying on Lionel Messi to drag himself out for every yard of the end-of-season marathon.

At the Camp Nou, Quique Setién has grasped the opportunity of a lifetime to coach the Catalans but he realises that he's just holding the throne until the future of the kingdom is decided.

The advantage for Real Madrid is that they have a winner as a coach who is progressing with his project. It is, and will be, neck-and-neck and who claims the title will come down to a fine margin. Zidane's pedigree may just edge it.