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Lopetegui lurches into Real crisis

China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-23 09:27
Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui during the press conference in Madrid, Spain, on Oct 22, 2018. [Photo/VCG]

Beleaguered coach's future appears to hinge on Sunday's El Clasico

MADRID - Real Madrid's players offered a show of public support for Julen Lopetegui on the weekend, but if they fail to win at home against Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday their words will mean very little.

"Julen has the backing of the entire team," Sergio Ramos said after Madrid's 2-1 loss to Levante on Saturday, its fourth defeat in five games and third in a row. "We are with him to the death."

Three months into the season, there are few obvious alternatives if the club's president, Florentino Perez, decides to wield the axe.

Santiago Solari, coach of Castilla, Real Madrid's B team, could take charge in the short-term but searching for a full-time boss now would likely prove as problematic as Lopetegui's appointment was in the summer.

Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, Liverpool's Juergen Klopp and Juventus' Max Allegri would all be near impossible to sign mid-season, while Joachim Loew is still attached to Germany.

Spanish newspaper Corriere dello Sport claims Antonio Conte, who is out of work since leaving Chelsea in the summer, has formally agreed to take the Real job, however the Italian's pragmatic style of play would not appear to be suited to Madrid's penchant for swashbuckling.

Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger, who has said he will return to work in January, would be a fascinating but high-risk pick.

For Lopetegui to call off the search, victory is surely essential against Plzen, the Czech team that has only won two Champions League matches in its history.

Then avoiding defeat to Barcelona, which will be without the injured Lionel Messi, in Sunday's El Clasico could buy him a trio of kinder matches against Melilla in the Copa del Rey, Real Valladolid in the league and Plzen again, this time in the Czech Republic.

Amid the sprawl of disapproving headlines on Sunday, Diario AS ran an online poll, asking: "Who is more guilty, the club's coach or president?"

Just over 80,000 replies were credited, and 86 percent of them answered Perez.

There were whistles after the loss to Levante and a scattering of swinging white handkerchiefs, too.

But the atmosphere was marked more by deflation than disgust. At the end, as his players hunched on their knees, Lopetegui stood on the touchline, staring into space.

There is a sense this "mega crisis", as termed by Barcelona's Mundo Deportivo, has been a long-time coming.

In July, days after Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus, Perez defended his recruitment strategy, saying: "Madrid is strengthening its search for young players that will become the next great players of the sport."

By the end of the summer, it had signed Vinicius Junior, an 18-year-old striker from Flamengo, Alvaro Odriozola, a 22-year-old fullback from Real Sociedad, and Mariano Diaz, who returned after a decent season with Lyon.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' signing from Chelsea was the only real proven star to arrive in the offseason.

Papering over cracks

One theory goes that Perez is keeping the coffers full in preparation for a fresh tilt for Neymar next summer. It might explain too why a move for Chelsea's Eden Hazard has never been pushed through.

In the meantime, Zinedine Zidane and now Lopetegui, have been charged with papering over the cracks.

Zidane managed it, spectacularly, by winning the Champions League, although were it not for a borderline 98th-minute penalty against Juventus, Madrid would have been out in the last 16. In La Liga, Madrid finished 17 points behind Barca.

Three Champions League titles in a row are no fluke, just as two interventions from the video assistant referee were not the sole reason Madrid lost at home to Levante for the first time in 11 years.

Defensive mistakes, panicky finishing and labored approach play all reflected badly on Lopetegui, who made matters worse by leaving Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema on the bench.

Both had fitness issues over the international break but were excellent in the second half. But by then, it was too late.

"I believe in this team more than ever," Lopetegui said.

Only one of the last six Madrid coaches to preside over three consecutive defeats was not fired afterwards. That was Bernd Schuster, whose players had put their feet up after winning the title in 2008.

Lopetegui has far less credit in the bank. Perez's period of austerity is coming home to roost.

AFP

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