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Lopetegui on borrowed time heading into El Clásico

The fixture that has largely come to define La Liga takes place this weekend as Real Madrid and their beleaguered boss Julen Lopetegui head to Catalonia to take on Barcelona at Camp Nou. It’s the Spanish champions against the European champions but for the first time in close to a decade, the fixture will take place without the two standout players of this generation.

Cristiano Ronaldo and to a greater extent Leo Messi will be interested spectators with Ronaldo now plying his trade in Serie A while the Argentine will presumably be at Camp Nou but not on the pitch due to a fractured arm suffered last weekend. The build-up to the fixture though has been dominated by talk of the ongoing crisis at Real Madrid, who are strongly believed to be on the brink of sacking coach Julen Lopetegui, a little over four months on from his sensational appointment on the eve of the World Cup.

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A miserable month for Los Blancos

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Real Madrid are a club unique in their ability to descend into crisis a matter of months after winning the Champions League. It’s hard to envisage how such a situation could arise elsewhere but in the space of a little over 30 days, things have completely turned on their head for Julen Lopetegui. It was only mid-September when he was drawing plaudits from all quarters with Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Roma in the Champions League viewed as one of their best performances in recent years. They appeared to have a clear philosophy, well-suited to their personnel and many pundits and supporters went as far as to suggest they might actually be moulding into a better team without Cristiano Ronaldo.

Six weeks on, such sentiments seem laughable. Real Madrid only last weekend broke a club record for their longest run without a goal. 481 minutes, over eight hours of football, separated Marco Asensio’s winner against Espanyol and what turned out to be a consolation from Marcelo at home to Levante. That defeat was their 4th in 5 matches in all competitions and the most damaging of the bunch.

If ever a coach needed a reaction from his team, it was Julen Lopetegui in midweek as Real faced Viktoria Plzen. A home game against European minnows in a competition that invariably brings the best out of Los Blancos seemed the perfect opportunity for a morale boost heading into el clasico. While Real won the game 2-1, there was no real hint of a team unifying behind their coach and no real reaction to one of the club’s worst ever sequences of results. The performance lacked urgency in the final third and was again error-strewn at the back as their limited opponents got in behind Real’s back four on numerous occasions and should have scored more than one goal.

Read more – More misery for Lopetegui as Levante win at the Bernabeu

Lopetegui facing the sack

It’s tempting to view this Sunday’s clasico as a ‘make or break’ game for Julen Lopetegui. However if the Spanish media are to be believed, the decision has already been made to sack the 52 year old and it’s merely a question of when not if it happens.

There are a couple of main factors that seem to have granted Lopetegui a stay of execution for now. The lack of an immediate, viable alternative is certainly one and even if such a candidate existed, Florentino Perez would have most likely been keen to avoid throwing him into a clasico so early on in his reign. The result of the fixture has a lasting impact and many a Real Madrid coach has effectively had their fate sealed by a defeat to Barcelona, the most recent being Rafa Benitez, who was never likely to last long following a 4-0 home clasico humiliation in 2015.

Benitez actually stumbled on for another couple of months before he was ultimately dismissed by Florentino Perez although his sacking is widely accepted to have been a direct result of the game. The politics of Real Madrid are rarely simple and again we may not necessarily see Lopetegui immediately sacked should the result go against him this weekend. Either way his days appear to be numbered. Jose Mourinho is believed to be Perez’s first choice as a replacement but that is unlikely until the summer unless the Portuguese is dismissed by Manchester United before then. Antonio Conte’s name has also been mentioned again but Real’s B team boss Santiago Solari is perhaps a more likely option for the short-term at least despite an unconvincing record with Castilla.

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Messi’s absence offers Real hope

The way they’ve been playing of late, Real Madrid could easily have ended up on the wrong end of another heavy clasico defeat had Leo Messi not fractured his arm last weekend. Barcelona have recorded 4-0, 5-0 and 6-2 wins over Los Blancos in the past decade alone but a repeat now looks highly unlikely. This isn’t the Barcelona of the peak Guardiola years and there’s no Neymar to soften the blow of Messi’s absence as was the case when Benitez’s side were thrashed by a Messi-less Barca three years ago.

While the Catalans did play well without their talisman in midweek against Inter, they have their own problems having failed to truly convince this season despite some more encouraging recent displays. Real Madrid, in recent years at least, have had a habit of rising from their slumber and putting in a performance at Camp Nou. They’ve not lost in 3 league visits but they’ve never gone 4 without defeat away to their great rivals in La Liga. However it’s worth noting that 2 of those recent trips came late in the season when the destiny of the title race was already known or as good as over.

That’s not the case here and they will encounter a Barcelona side that is hungry to kick Real while they are down and open up a 7 point advantage on their most likely title rivals. Defeat would leave the European champions languishing in mid-table and Lopetegui flirting ever more dangerously with the axe. It will certainly take a vastly improved display from Real Madrid if they are to get anything from the game but in the crazy world of el clásico, anything is possible.

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