The world can be a ruthless one. The microcosm of football even worse. The entity that is Real Madrid, unique.
This week has showcased just how ruthless. Just fourth months after Julen Lopetegui was on the cusp on guiding Spain to World Cup glory, the 52-year-old is now staring a nightmare full in the face. Without his World Cup glory and without his dream job.
If reports are to be believed, Lopetegui is seeing out his last days as Real Madrid boss. Victory over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League should extend his stay in the Madrid hot seat for days, although some believe the coach’s days are numbered no matter what the result against the Czech side, but defeat in Sunday’s Clásico should spell the end. The only thing missing seems to be a viable replacement for Florentino Pérez and the board.
Few will sympathise with Lopetegui’s demise. Spain as a nation poured hate on their former national coach when he decided to succeed Zinedine Zidane as Madrid coach just days before the start of the World Cup in Russia. Both Lopetegui and Spanish FA head Luis Rubiales took hits in equal measure, while non-madridistas fired plenty of flack Florentino’s way, too.
But Lopetegui cannot be blamed for taking his dream job. The manner in which his departure from the Spanish national team was managed was nothing short of a disgrace, a case of oneupmanship between the Spanish FA and Madrid. Had Madrid waited to approach Lopetegui, or had the deal remained behind closed doors until after the World Cup, little would have been made of the move on ethical grounds.
Now the Basque coach is the one ultimately being left battered and bruised. Lopetegui gave up his chance of lifting the World Cup to take, understandably, his dream job, a job he thought may never come around again. And he’d probably be right to think that. No job in world football is bigger than that of Real Madrid and the opportunity knocks only once.
For Lopetegui to give up so much, Madrid should lend him more time. That he’s been given two months to prove himself is lamentable. That he took on a job Zidane did not fancy owing to a lack of signings forthcoming and the impending departure of the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo is commendable. With all the changes that took place he should be handed more time.
The run Madrid is currently on in is a ‘crisis’, in Spanish press terms. It’s all relative, and although sounding dramatic, a three-game losing streak and five matches without a win does indeed bring panic and crisis to the support, the press and the club, but the bigger picture needs to be looked at. Los Blancos can potentially move to within a point of the league leaders should they win the Clásico at the Camp Nou on Sunday. Crisis? What crisis?
Looking at that run in more detail also speaks volumes. Madrid were unfortunate against Levante. They defended poorly but his the woodwork three times, had a goal disallowed and saw various chances come and go. A coach can prepare as much as he wants off the pitch but he cannot prepare for that kind of bad fortune. In the previous outing Madrid were the better team against an in-form Alaves but lost out to a late, late goal. In Moscow, without their captain and players such as Gareth Bale and Isco they were poor, and in the stalemate against Atlético, who they hold a poor record against in recent years, they merited more.
With the Champions League returning to the Bernabéu it is worth casting your mind back to the last European outing in the capital, with Madrid slicing apart last year’s semi-finalists Roma 3-0. That performance brought plaudits and many felt things had clicked under Lopetegui. A new Real Madrid. How opinions change.
The damage now already looks done and, ironically, the worst thing that could possible happen as far as Madrid and Pérez are concerned, is for Lopetegui to lead his troops to back-to-back victories in Europe and against Barcelona. It would make it difficult for Los Blancos to sack a manager who has come through what he’s had to deal with to win those matches.