Zinédine Zidane knows all about Laurent Blanc's leadership qualities from the days when the pair inspired France to victory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000 and believes that his former club FC Girondins de Bordeaux could not be in better hands as they set out to win even more admirers in the UEFA Champions League knockout phase.
Zidane played for Bordeaux between 1992 and 1996, aiding them to the UEFA Cup final in his last year before joining Juventus. Since Blanc took over at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in 2007 similar success has followed as they claimed the Ligue 1 title in 2008/09 and finished above FC Bayern München and Juve in this season's UEFA Champions League group stage. A stylish centre-back in his days as Zidane's national team-mate, Blanc has since proved adept at injecting those leadership qualities into his nascent coaching career.
"Having Laurent Blanc as your coach is a big deal," Zidane said. "You need a leader to push you and help a team develop together, and that's what he's brought, with the help of his staff of course. He has quality players – let's not forget that either – and then you gain confidence when you win something. When you get into a rhythm of winning games, everything becomes easier."
Zidane was himself a 'quality player' for Bordeaux of course and that has made him doubly pleased with Blanc's work, as they prepare to face Olympiacos FC in the first knockout round on 23 February and 17 March. "We're used to seeing the same teams on the European stage," continued Zidane. "When you get to the quarters and semi-finals, you always find the same teams, so to see Les Girondins getting through, and in the way they did it, gives me real pleasure. It gives me pleasure to highlight it too."
Back in the limelight earlier this month due to his role in the Match against Poverty in Lisbon, Zidane is also keen for another of his former clubs to shine in this season's UEFA Champions League. "I hope that Real Madrid can finally have some joy this year because the final is happening in Madrid," he said, looking forward to the showpiece at the Santiago Bernabéu on 22 May. "I remember in the World Cup how playing the final in France allowed us to beat the mighty Brazil. I hope that happens for Madrid because it's a chance for them to win their tenth European Cup."
It was with Los Merengues that the 37-year-old ultimately tasted success in this competition, and it is one he describes as being "close to my heart", having volleyed a majestic winner to defeat Bayer 04 Leverkusen 2-1 in the 2002 final after twice losing the showpiece with Juventus.
"It's magnificent," he said. "Winning the Champions League was no small matter. It was the one trophy I was missing in the latter part of my career, so to win it in 2002 was in some ways a relief, having lost twice before. Of course, that volley was a great moment for me because I was missing that trophy. To score like that in the Champions League ... It's good if it happens to you once in your life, and it happened to me that evening during the Champions League final."
His Madrid ties notwithstanding, 'Zizou' cannot mask his admiration for one of the game's contemporary masters. Current Ballon d'Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi may perform his good works for FC Barcelona, but his skills are far too potent to be ignored by even the most partisan observer.
"We always come up with the same words, but you really need to watch and enjoy the spectacle he puts on every match and weekend with Barcelona," said Zidane. "He often manages to change games on his own and I think what makes him special is he's a player who's always moving forward.
"He never passes back, he never passes to the side: he has one thought in his head when he has the ball and that's to get to the goal. I enjoy the spectacle as a football fan." Countless supporters who watched their teams suffer at Zidane's hands down the years will know precisely what he means.
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