As recently as January 2016, Real Madrid were a club in crises. Having been defeated 4-0 by Barcelona in late November, kicked out of the Copa del Rey in the round of 32 after fielding an ineligible player and dropping points to both Villarreal and Valencia in the space of a few weeks, manager Rafa Benitez was given his marching orders on January 3rd.
Worrying for Real was also the form and temperament of star player Cristiano Ronaldo. Rumored to have been at odds with Benitez over his training methods and tactical choices, Ronaldo had managed 14 goals in 18 La Liga matches but half of those had come in two matches against Espanyol and Rayo Vallecano.
Zinedine Zidane was promptly appointed on January 4th and Real’s, and Ronaldo’s, fortunes immediately transformed. Real Madrid won their final 12 La Liga matches, including putting an end to Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten run, to finish only a single point behind Barca in the final table.
Of course, they also went on to win the Champions League with a penalty shootout triumph over local rivals Atletico Madrid. Ronaldo would finish with 51 goals across all competitions for Real.
Ronaldo took his good form with him into the European Championships in France, proving the catalyst for a Portuguese side that would ultimately triumph in the final.
Now, with UEFA set to hand out their annual Best Player in Europe Award at the Champions League group stage draw on Thursday, Ronaldo has been quick to credit Zidane for “one of the best seasons” of his career:
"We didn't start well last season, but the end was happy. I think everything improved with Zidane's arrival. We won the Champions League and I was top scorer and that was probably one of the best seasons in my career.”
Since the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award’s inception in 2011, Ronaldo is the only player to have been shortlisted for the prize every single year. Lionel Messi is the only player to have won the award twice but Ronaldo looks an almost certainty to duplicate that feat.
The finalists for the 2015-16 award are Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann — they narrowly edged out both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi for the nomination.
"Looking at trophies only, it was sure my best season,” said Ronaldo. “I also won Euro 2016 with Portugal, which was an exceptional success for me. It is privilege to be alongside Bale and Griezmann and fight for this award.
"Since this trophy has been introduced, I am always there, winning three nominations. This is proof I've had a great season, not just individually but also with my teams. It was great to lift the Champions League trophy with Real.
"It would mean very much to me if I won the Best Player in Europe award. But it is more important that we won trophies as a team."
Ronaldo missed Real’s La Liga opening victory against Real Sociedad, but it’s anticipated that he’ll return for their match against Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Follow me on Twitter: @ConmanFleming