Julen Lopetegui, the fall guy for wider malaise at Real Madrid
The coach is on the brink after the loss to Levante, but fans blame club president Florentino Perez
Madrid - Amid the sprawl of headlines calling for Julen Lopetegui to be sacked by Real Madrid on Sunday, Spanish daily sports newspaper Diario AS ran an online poll: who is more guilty, the coach or the club president?
Just more than 80,000 replies were credited — almost 17,000 more than had attended the Santiago Bernabeu the day before — and 86% of them answered Florentino Perez.
There were whistles after Madrid’s 2-1 loss to Levante on Saturday, their fourth defeat in five games and third in a row. There was 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.
"Julen has the support of the entire team," Sergio Ramos said. "We are with him to the death," Marcelo said.
Lopetegui is on the brink — he may well not make the Clasico on Sunday — but 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."
By the end of the summer, they had signed Vinicius, the 18-year-old striker from Flamengo, Alvaro Odriozola, a 22-year-old right back from Real Sociedad, and Mariano Diaz, who returned after a decent season with Lyon.
Only Thibaut Courtois could be considered a star, and he was joining a club that already had Uefa’s goalkeeper of the season.
One theory goes that Perez is keeping the treasury full in preparation for a fresh tilt for Neymar next summer. It might explain too why a move for 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 in Europe, though if Michael Oliver had not puffed his whistle for a borderline 98th-minute penalty against Juventus, Madrid would have been out in the last 16.
In La Liga, they finished 17 points behind Barcelona.
Three Champions League titles in a row is 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 stodgy build-up all reflected badly on Lopetegui, who made matters worse by leaving Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema on the bench.
Both endured fitness issues over the international break but were excellent in the second half. 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 sacked afterwards. That was Bernd Schuster, whose team had put their feet up after winning the title in 2008.
Marca’s headline was: "This Madrid is in ruins" on Sunday, and El Pais claimed Perez has already decided on change after the Clasico at Camp Nou.
Santiago Solari, coach of Castilla, Real Madrid’s B team, could take charge in the short-term, but Perez’s problem in hiring a suitable successor in the summer has not been solved four months later.
Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Max Allegri would all be near-impossible to sign mid-season, while Joachim Low is still attached to Germany.
Antonio Conte is out of work but there is an issue with the Italian’s style of play. Arsene Wenger would be fascinating but high-risk. AFP