By Karl Matchett.


Zinedine Zidane has had a relatively straight-forward early path in top-tier management with Real Madrid, with five games against bottom-half or mid-table La Liga sides yielding four wins and a draw before his first big test, a 4-2 win over Athletic Club last weekend. 


Now the Frenchman moves into even bigger territory: the UEFA Champions League and a first leg tie against AS Roma. The Wednesday night fixture will give Zidane a spotlight on the front lines of world football such as he has yet to experience; even those nights spent in the competition as an assistant saw him only reflecting the full glare which shone on then-boss Carlo Ancelotti. There was always a shadow for Zizou to stand in-now the focus is all on him.


So far, so good, but so far it has been 12 or 13 of the world's finest players which has gotten him the job done.


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The next step for Zidane is to take this good early form and push it toward a title fight, either a comeback in La Liga or going on to challenge for the Champions League itself. To do that, he needs to begin incorporating more of his squad players, with several of them barely getting a look in so far. It's easy to imagine that, remembering Ancelotti's preference for fielding the strongest XI at all times, Zidane might prefer to take the same approach. Ancelotti did deliver La Decima, the club's 10th European Cup/Champions League success, but it was very much a rarity in modern football.


Zidane has so far leaned heavily on his "BBC" front three-Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo-when available, with James Rodriguez coming in for Bale when the Welshman has been injured. The midfield has been consistent also, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric the lynchpins and either Isco or Mateo Kovacic beside them. A first-choice goalkeeper and back four has only been subbed or switched around when injury has struck.


Several of the players who featured under Rafa Benitez have had to look on from the sidelines of late, uninvolved. Full-back Danilo, who cost €30 million in summer, has played just 130 minutes under Zidane. This list goes on: Lucas Vazquez has come off the bench twice for 26 minutes of action, utility man Nacho has done exactly the same, while backups Kiko Casilla and Alvaro Arbeloa, perhaps understandably, haven't featured for a single minute.


The biggest surprises are maybe those who could potentially be starters: Casemiro has just 20 minutes off the bench in the last six weeks, Kovacic has just over 100 minutes including one start and impact forward Jese has come off the bench in five of the six games under Zidane, but still totals just under 130 minutes in that period. Denis Cheryshev didn't feature at all and was sent out on loan to Valencia, where he has already won a place in the team and scored a crucial weekend goal to give them a first Liga win in almost 100 days.


Without those squad players, those who come in to cover for injuries, suspensions and poor form, being utilised and feeling integrated into the team, Real will win nothing of note.


When the time comes and one of the big-name stars picks up an injury, players will find it difficult to motivate themselves fully. Sure, they'll get a chance for a game, or three games, but even if they impress are they going to remain in the team once Modric returns? Or Benzema, or Marcelo? Danilo is a case in point. He featured at right-back due to Marcelo's injury, with Dani Carvajal switching left. The Brazilian played reasonably well, but it would surprise nobody if Marcelo immediately came back in once back to full fitness.


Perception matters an awful lot at a club like Real Madrid, and the perception Zidane is giving off is that only the true stars will start games and can win games. Everybody else is a support act.


Again, perhaps that's not hugely surprising, given the Real side which Zidane himself played in was los Galacticos. Big names, big signings, big expectations. Everything else and everybody else were in the background. The current Real set-up doesn't allow for fringe players to impress and become a starter and that needs to change soon enough. More fixtures, more tiredness and more injuries could derail Real's season in a heartbeat. Where then will Zidane turn to if the lack of meritocracy in the first team gives no incentive for the backups to perform?