You could say it wasn’t meant to end this way, but everything pointed to it ending this way. The only question mark was when.
That question mark still remains, but a 2-1 home defeat against Levante has left Julen Lopetegui’s time as Real Madrid coach hanging by a thread. That thread may already have been cut.
Reports suggested Lopetegui had a post-match chat with president Florentino Pérez in the Bernabéu dressing room following his side’s third defeat on the spin and that chat pointed towards him still being in charge for Tuesday’s Champions League clash against Viktoria Plzen. A trip to the Camp Nou for a massive Clásico clash with Barcelona follows next weekend but a decision on Lopetegui’s future now seems a matter of ‘when’, and not ‘if’ the plug is pulled.
Few managers survive a run like this while in charge of Los Blancos. Madrid have not just been poor, relatively, they’ve lost to relatively poor sides, the defence has been a shambles and the attack has not been scoring. Key players have been way below par. The only positive has been the form of Madrid’s other title contenders in Barcelona and Atlético but the former could open up a gap with victory in next weekend’s Clásico.
Historically, everything points to Madrid already having taken a decision over the coach’s future, now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time to announce it. Some backing of Lopetegui may be offered in light of press pressure, but ultimately that would be to save some face and show signs of support for a coach who has always been up against it.
If anything, it was always meant to end like this and the end, should it come soon, will not be a surprise to anyone.
Zidane was always a tough act to follow, for his legendary status as a player at the club and winning an unprecedented three Champions League crowns in as many seasons. Nobody would surpass that but Lopetegui, understandably, had to take his chance.
The way he arrived at the Bernabéu left little to be desired and left him up against it right from the off. Having the press onside at Madrid is key and Lopetegui’s dramatic departure from the Spain camp just days before the World Cup did not play well, even more so after the embarrassing elimination against hosts Russia.
A UEFA Super Cup victory over city rivals Atlético would have got things off on the right foot but an extra-time defeat in Estonia meant that not even victories in Madrid’s opening three LaLiga matches, against Getafe, Girona and Leganés respectively, would have eased the pressure. The 3-0 demotion at Seville set the ball rolling and Madrid, and Lopetegui, have not recovered.
The post-match memes centred on Pérez looking at his phone after Levante opened up a 2-0 lead on Saturday, with messages and calls to Antonio Conte, the former Chelsea boss who is currently out of work and who has been reported as the man to come in and salvage Madrid’s season. Those memes are probably not too far from the truth.
The comparisons with Rafa Benitez can be seen as lazy but there are too many similarities. While Madrid’s Spanish internationals had a good relationship with Lopetegui following his time as coach of the national team, the coach has not shone with personality nor inspiration but things are not entirely his fault.
Perhaps Perez and company saw this coming. Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo certainly did and quit while at the top. That the club failed to sufficiently rebuild a squad that, despite winning three straight Champions League titles, was on the wane and in need of a fresh spark, left Lopetegui with a tough job. There was no big replacement for a player who could comfortably score 40 or 50 crucial goals every season. There was no Neymar or Mbappe incoming.
Now fans, media and perhaps even some players are counting down the days or weeks Lopetegui has at the helm. With a potential Clásico defeat incoming, Perez will not want that feeling hanging around the club for too long. Stay tuned, one of the club’s infamous ‘Comunicado Oficial’ should not be too far away.