MADRID • Local media reports had said Zinedine Zidane would be fired if Real Madrid failed to reach the knockout phase of the Champions League for the first time.
The Spanish champions had to better Shakhtar Donetsk’s result at Inter Milan (0-0) or drop into the Europa League for the first time since the 1994-95 season.
With Zidane’s job on the line despite having won 11 trophies across two spells, Real rose to the occasion, strolling to a 2-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach to seal their place in the last 16 as Group B winners on Wednesday.
A pair of first-half headers by their top scorer Karim Benzema put the German Bundesliga side away in what Zidane hailed as their best display of a stop-start campaign.
“We played a spectacular game from the first minute to the last,” the Frenchman told reporters.
“We interpreted the game very well, I think it was the most complete performance of the season.”
Zidane’s men had begun the evening third in Group B but finished top to ensure they will be seeded in Monday’s draw for the last 16.
Praising the 13-time European Cup winners’ capacity to perform when backed into a corner, he also emphasised the importance of winning the group and avoiding the best sides left in the competition in the next round.
“We don’t just play well under pressure, we have played well in other games too but it’s true that this team has this ability to come into their own when the going gets tough,” Zidane said.
“I’ve been a player and it’s impossible to play like this all the time. We try to but sometimes, it doesn’t come off. I’m very happy for the players, because they are the most important members of this squad.”
- 29 in 29
Real Madrid have qualified out of every group they have played in Champions League history.
He added: “It was fundamental that we finished first, it’s the first time that has happened since I’ve been coach.”
While Zidane has staved off the immediate pressure, his future will again be called into question if Real fail to beat La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid, who are six points ahead on 26 points and have a game in hand, in the league tomorrow.
Diego Simeone’s men are in form and on Wednesday, also qualified for the last 16, finishing runners-up to Group A winners and European champions Bayern Munich following their 2-0 victory at Red Bull Salzburg.
Acknowledging he was still under the gun, Zidane said: “No, I don’t think I’ll ever be the Alex Ferguson of Real Madrid. That’s for sure. What I really want is to enjoy what I’m doing.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here for. I don’t even think about that. I just think about the day-to-day and the luck I have to be here at this great club with these great players. Even in difficult moments, I like it. Not only just when we win. I want to stay for a while longer.”
Despite the defeat, Gladbach also progressed to the knockout stage for the first time in their third participation in the competition, while Shakhtar dropped into the Europa League, meaning Inter will have no European football for the rest of the term.