Italian football helped sculpt the artistry of Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane

Ahead of the last-16 Uefa Champions League clash against Roma, Ian Hawkey takes a look at Serie A's influence on the Real Madrid coach.

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane gestures from the sidelines during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Athletic Club Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on February 13, 2016. / AFP / GERARD JULIEN
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In the playing career of Zinedine Zidane, Rome was often an awkward place to go.

He spent five seasons at Juventus, was voted the best footballer on earth while there, and at the end of two of them the Serie A title ended up in the Italian capital, to the irritation of the club from Turin.

Rome may feel an awkward place for Zidane to make his first appearance as a manager in the Uefa Champions League, too. His Real Madrid take on a Roma side whose form has turned sharp after a slump, who have a savvy coach in Luciano Spalletti, and who have the pace and midfield grit to examine vulnerabilities in the way Madrid defend.

Curiously, Roma happen to be the club Zidane played against more than any other in a career that switched from France to Italy when he was 24 and then onto the Madrid where he hung up his boots five years after Juventus sold him for what was a world-record fee in 2001.

Zidane the player acknowledged he owed much to the culture of Italian football at the time. He worked under some formative managers, such as Carlo Ancelotti, who would later invite Zidane the apprentice coach to be his deputy, and the influential Marcello Lippi.

The Serie A of the late 1990s, when Zidane joined Juve from Bordeaux, was, in the words of Dino Zoff, the former Italy and Lazio coach “a football university”.

It was regarded as Europe’s best league. Juventus reached three successive European Cup finals up until 1998, following a period of AC Milan supremacy in that competition.

Serie A made physical and tactical demands of its players, and for the young Zidane the initiation would be tough. He came through it, won two Italian titles, and the 1998 Ballon D’Or, while employed by Juve.

Lippi called him “the best player of a 20-year era”, but saw more of an obvious future manager in other members of his Juve squad of the time: Didier Deschamps, now coach of France, was more forthright as a leader than Zidane. Likewise, Antonio Conte, now manager of Italy.

But Italian audiences certainly remember many moments of balletic brilliance from the Zidane of Juve and would become nostalgic for men of his calibre.

His move to Spain marked an important power shift in the European game. Madrid won the European Cup, thanks to a Zidane volley at the end of his first season there.

Primera Liga overtook Serie A as the preferred destination of superstars who could pick and chose where they worked. Spanish teams started to become fixtures in Champions League finals in the way Italian clubs had been.

Italy also saw, close-up, the rash side of Zidane the player and will be curious to view the cool customer, in whom some of Lippi’s demeanour as a manager is detectable, who has patrolled the touchline at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium over the past month or so.

It is not the same Zidane who finished his Juventus career under a long European suspension, for butting a Hamburg player in a Champions League match. Or the “ZZ” who finished his playing career, notoriously, with a red card in a World Cup final for butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi.

At Madrid, the first six weeks of Zidane’s management have been exhilarating: walloping wins at home against lesser opposition, a visible uplift in the enthusiasm of those players who had turned sullen under Rafa Benitez, dismissed in January after less than half a campaign in charge.

Roma, too, are under new management, Spalletti having replaced Rudi Garcia last month. Four successive wins under Spalletti have improved the mood.

This is Spalletti’s second spell in charge of Roma, where he made a reputation as innovative, tactically cute and daring. A thinker in the Italian tradition, but not cagey by instinct.

He knows his way around big matches. Spalletti was devising game plans on Serie A touchlines when Zidane was still an attacking midfielder at Juventus.

Tonight, he will take charge of his 92nd match in European competition. He has twice guided Roma into the last eight and reached the last 16 with Zenit Saint Petersburg two years ago.

That is enough expertise to make Zidane feel quite the novice as he returns to the country that was once his home.