- With Real Madrid languishing in seventh place in La Liga, winless in its last five and facing the Champions League and Clasico stages this week, it's now or never for Julen Lopetegui to fix what's ailing the squad.
It’s hard to believe there have been many worse decisions, in football at least, than that of Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup. Accepting the Real Madrid job led to his own dismissal from the Spanish national team and effectively ruined the World Cup for Spain. And for what? For 12 games in charge of Real Madrid? Perhaps he will soldier on. Perhaps Real Madrid will recover, as it did in 2000-01, when it found itself in a similar position, and win the league. But after Saturday’s embarrassment at home to Levante, there is widespread expectation that Lopetegui will be sacked sooner rather than later.
The problems Real Madrid might have adapting after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo were evident in the UEFA Super Cup in August as it lost 4-2 to Atletico Madrid. The weird laxity that haunted the club even as it won three Champions Leagues in a row was still there, but this time the attacking potency needed to negate that was not.
But Madrid steadied after that, taking 13 points from its first five league games and beating Roma impressively in the Champions League–which has made the decline since then all the more remarkable. It was hammered 3-0 at Sevilla, a ground where it has often had problems. It drew against Atletico. It lost 1-0 in the Champions League away to CSKA Moscow. It lost to Alaves and then Levante. Marcelo’s 71st-minute goal in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at least ended the club's longest goal drought in 33 years.
For all of the losses under his watch, Lopetegui appears to not have lost his locker room yet. Isco came out fighting in support of his manager at the pre-match press conference for Tuesday’s Champions League game at home vs. Viktoria Plzen.
“I do not believe the press has the power to sack a coach,” he said, as though the media were somehow wrong to point out Madrid has drawn one and lost four of its last five games. "The controversy that you want to create in the dressing room is not there. We trust in the staff that we have and in what we have done. The boss has all our confidence. It would be crazy [to sack him]. You have to let him work. If you sack the coach you have to sack us all because we are the ones on the field–this is something for everyone, not just the coach. Historically, people who criticize us come back later with their tail between their legs once we win Champions League.”
It is true that Madrid has a habit of starting seasons slowly and recovering to excel in Europe. That’s one of the reasons it has won four of the past five Champions Leagues but only two league titles in the past decade. It’s also true that, with all the big sides stuttering, Madrid, although seventh in the table, is only four points off the leaders Barcelona. But in recent times, it’s hard to remember Madrid playing as badly as it has over the past month, and Lopetegui has offered little reason to believe these are just teething problems.
All the indications from within the club are that Lopetegui is already effectively on his way; the only issue is timing. Even in this weakened state, Madrid should be good enough to see off Viktoria tomorrow. But then comes the Clasico. Even assuming there is a replacement manager ready and waiting, does it really make sense to make the change so close to a game against Barcelona? Madrid may regret not having acted during the international break.
So who, realistically, could step in? Antonio Conte would seem an obvious choice, but given his severance from Chelsea remains unresolved, it’s not clear that he could swiftly take another job. Jose Mourinho, pressed on the issue on Monday, seemed unenthusiastic about the prospect of swapping his tribulations at Manchester United for the crisis at Madrid. Could Zinedine Zidane be persuaded to return? Could Santiago Solari step up from the reserves? Could Raul or Xabi Alonso, neither of whom have the requisite qualifications yet, be appointed alongside a more experienced coach? Arsene Wenger has let it be known that he would welcome another job, but after turning 69 on Monday, it’s hard to see how he could ever be anything other than a short-term stand-in to steady the ship.
Then again, perhaps the alternative to making a change now is even worse. What if Madrid wins the derby under Lopetegui? It would then effectively be forced to struggle on under a manager in whom faith has been lost, for a couple of months at least. The Clasico still overshadows all else.
But the truth is the problems reach far beyond the coach. The need to rebuild and restructure has been obvious for some time, and so too has the lack of will and resources from above to do so. That’s the main reason Zidane left–and being brutally honest, it’s the reason no higher-profile coach than Lopetegui was willing to replace him.