The "best coach in the world" comes to the stadium he is entitled to regard as the most hostile on the planet. Pep Guardiola has been called number one in his profession by many of his peers but the compliment does not often come from the headquarters of Real Madrid. Yet that's what Zinedine Zidane described Guardiola as, as soon as he heard they would be confronting each other as managers for the first time.
When the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League put City and Madrid together, a glorious 2019 for Guardiola was coming to an end, domestic treble achieved, Premier League title defended after the toughest of jousts. Madrid, on the other hand, were saying adios to a thoroughly bad year, one where their three-year sequence of European Cup triumphs had ended. The good news? They were clearly in recovery and they had their most successful coach of the 21st century back, Zidane having returned nine months after stepping aside.
Guardiola versus Zidane. A peculiarity of this stellar encounter is its rarity. They are much of an age, Guardiola, 49, the older only by 18 months. They were legends as midfielders at clubs - Barcelona and Madrid - whose confrontations were many and memorable. Yet circumstances kept them at a distance: Guardiola left Barcelona to play in Italy in the same summer, 2001, that Zidane left Italy to join Madrid.
Between them they played over 1,100 matches at elite level; they coincided on a pitch for a full competitive 90 minutes just once, when Zidane’s France beat Guardiola’s Spain in a high-class and compelling quarter-final at Euro 2000.
They have never met as managers, a quirky fact when you consider that of the last 11 editions of the Champions League, five finished with either Guardiola or Zidane as the winning coach. And when Zidane named Guardiola as “the best in the world” he was partly acknowledging the 2009 and 2011 European Cups, won by a masterly Barcelona within Guardiola's first three years in senior coaching.
What Zidane was not inviting, with his compliment, was comparison with his own golden start as a manager. Zidane does not operate in that way. Yet the comparison is there, bold and stark, as a story of spectacularly rapid individual progress: Guardiola, then 37, moved from coaching Barcelona B to winning the Champions League and La Liga within 12 months. Within six months of his promotion from Castilla - Real Madrid’s feeder team - Zidane was guiding the senior team to the 2016 Champions League title, the first of three on the trot.
‘Zizou’ owes Pep for making that happen. There is little doubt that Madrid’s president Florentino Perez became more open to the notion of swiftly promoting a club legend to head coach having seen, up close and painful, the success of Guardiola at Barca. Painful, because before Guardiola had turned 40, he had overseen a glorious run of ‘clasicos’ against Madrid, Barca undefeated and with five victories in seven games against their most resonant rivals, including a Champions League semi-final and 6-2 Liga win at the Bernabeu.
Nights like those defined Guardiola as an inspiring leader and as a perfectionist about how football should be played. Nights like those persuaded him that the virtues of pass-and-move were winning virtues, as they would be again on his watch at Bayern Munich and City.
Zidane can seem less dogmatic. He is certainly less theatrical on a touchline than Guardiola, and, for all his assembly of European Cups, and the Liga title his Madrid won in 2017, he is not often labelled “the best coach in the world”.
“I don’t claim to have invented football,” Zidane is fond of saying of himself, and if that sounds like a barb aimed at any of his contemporaries, it is misheard. Greatness came readily to Zidane the player, three times Fifa’s World Footballer of the Year; his successes as a freshman coach have been achieved without boast or symptoms of vanity.
Players speak up for him, stressing his light-touch man-management skills. He is pragmatic. The Madrid he took through an 14-match unbeaten run in La Liga until Saturday's surprise loss to Levante have not always been swashbuckling stylists, but they have looked competitive. And if, missing the injured artists Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio, they can emerge looking competitive for the next leg, Zidane will be quietly content.