Manchester United and Real Madrid are currently under the guidance of managers who weren't supposed to be in their current roles, and with both facing challenging stretches ahead, we'll see first-hand how much progress has actually been made.
At this juncture of the season, Manchester United was supposed to be challenging titles and cups on multiple fronts as Jose Mourinho's methods finally took hold in his third year at the helm. Real Madrid was supposed to take the next step in its evolution, following its three Champions League crowns under Zinedine Zidane by moving forward under the guidance of Julen Lopetegui, who sought the role so much that it cost him the chance to lead Spain at the World Cup.
Of course, none of that came remotely close to playing out. Mourinho was gone in December, it becoming increasingly clear that he had no hand on the pulse of his own squad and that his ways were no longer so special. At one of his former clubs, Lopetegui was gone after 14 matches, as Real Madrid sputtered out of the gates, failing to meet the lofty standards that Florentino Perez has set for his organization.
A pair of unlikely sources were then tabbed to come to the rescue. Caretaker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed no introduction to the Old Trafford faithful, a fan favorite as a player in the Sir Alex Ferguson years, but after a wretched spell as manager of Cardiff City, he settled into life outside of the spotlight with Molde in his native Norway. Santiago Solari had been well ingrained within Real Madrid's fabric as coach of its Castilla reserve team, but he wasn't supposed to be anything more than a few-match stopgap while a more permanent solution was discovered.
To both clubs' pleasant surprise, their accidental managers have steadied their respective ships. Now we find out if they're for real.
Both face the defining stretches of their season, beginning this week. It all comes full circle for Real Madrid with the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals against rival Barcelona. It was after a heavy Clasico defeat, after all, that Lopetegui was given his marching orders. In the 23 matches in all competitions since–La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup–Real Madrid has gone 18-4-1. It won the Club World Cup, advanced to the Champions League round of 16 and Copa semis and has fortified its place in the top four of La Liga–something that wasn't so certain through the early ups and downs of the season. Solari has since been extended as permanent manager through June 2021–though with Perez's quick trigger finger that doesn't mean much.
A rematch vs. Barcelona is followed three days later by a Madrid derby in the league, with Atletico Madrid hosting the festivities at the Wanda Metropolitano. Four days after that, Real will see if it can take a step toward returning to Atleti's home–it's the host of the Champions League final–when it heads to Ajax for the first leg of their last-16 series. The Dutch side will present a challenge to Real's three-year UCL reign, with Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong surely looking to make an early good impression for his future club.
After a relative break from the high stakes, with league games against Girona and Levante, the high hurdles return. Consecutive games against Barcelona in a five-day span–first the Copa del Rey second leg, then their final league meeting–is followed three days later by the second leg vs. Ajax. What's this Real Madrid, with its cast of aging yet rejuvenated veterans, precocious rising stars and unsupposing manager–made of? You'll know for sure in a month.
Man United, meanwhile, has yet to taste defeat under Solskjaer, going 9-0-1 in his 10 matches. It took a furious late comeback vs. Burnley to keep that loss column without a blemish, but the fighting spirit is back at Old Trafford. The schedule he's faced, though, has been rather friendly. Save for an FA Cup win at Arsenal and a league win at Tottenham, the opponents were all those you'd expect Man United to defeat.
Following the weekend's match vs. Fulham is an eight-match gauntlet over the course of a month that will put Solskjaer's managerial chops to the test. It starts next Tuesday, with the first leg of the Champions League last 16 vs. PSG and continues six days later at Chelsea in a battle vital to the top-four race. Six days later, it's league-leading Liverpool that comes to Old Trafford, and after a pair of league bouts vs. Crystal Palace and Southampton, it's only just at PSG, at Arsenal and home vs. Man City in a 10-day span. By the end of it, we'll have a clear picture of whether Man United has any true European aspirations and hopes–both for this season and next.
For a squad whose lack of defensive depth can't be masked over solely by a managerial change, it's the ultimate test, and if Solskjaer emerges on the other side of it with a place in the top four and a UCL quarterfinal berth within his grasp, you can be sure the permanent job will be his to lose.
The flip side of a brutal fixture stretch is that it presents opportunity. Nobody was expecting Solskjaer or Solari to be in the positions they currently are when the season began, and there are sure to be doubters and skeptics who feel these stretches will cripple them both. It's their time to prove their worth–one way or another.