European Football: Real Madrid goal drought threatens Lopetegui
After a tumultuous exit from Spain's national team, Julen Lopetegui has work to do to save his current role in charge of misfiring Real Madrid, says our European football columnist Andy Brassell...
"At this point last year, Ronaldo was lamenting to any journalist than would listen the lack of experienced depth on the bench, with Álvaro Morata and James Rodríguez having been moved on. The extra attacking options would have been welcome then and would be welcome now."
This was always going to be a tricky season for Julen Lopetegui. Following Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid would have been a tricky task for anyone after his three successive Champions League wins - a feat unmatched at the club since the 1950s and the competition's advent - but his chosen successor's circumstances were particular.
The manner of Lopetegui's departure for Real Madrid were never going to be forgotten overnight. His and the club's blindsiding of the RFEF (Real Federación Española de Fútbol) are still widely seen in Spain as torpedoing the national team's World Cup hopes, even if it was RFEF president Luís Rubiales who took the decision to sack the coach in disgust at being kept in the dark over the process and the timing of El Real's announcement.
Limited credit to fall back on
The great Lennie Lawrence once estimated that by keeping the media onside, an under-pressure manager/head coach could buy himself "six weeks more time" when results began to turn for the worse. Lopetegui will not have that luxury and with his Real Madrid side having now gone almost seven hours without scoring a goal, he needs to pull a rabbit from the hat sooner rather than later - if indeed he isn't about to be timed out already, with the international break often taken as a logical point to deal with such matters.
Betfair Sportsbook has a Next Real Madrid Manager market up already, with Mauricio Pochettino the 5/2 favourite ahead of Antonio Conte at 7/2
The Bernabéu giants are still second favourites to win La Liga at [4.6], but the market also thinks their chances of dethroning Barcelona are slim, with Ernesto Valverde, Lionel Messi and company as short as [1.69] to retain their crown. El Real are currently fifth, only two points from the top but with plenty to do in order to kickstart their season.
Misfiring Madrid - again
What concerns most is that dry spell in front of goal. It would be easy enough to draw the conclusion that the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo is responsible for those difficulties, but that goes without factoring in his slower start to season nowadays.
By mid-January last season he had only struck four times in La Liga, and the relatively barren months endured by the Portugal captain and Karim Benzema (who had just three strikes to his name at the same point) meant their title defence was caught in the starting blocks. It would also suggest that the problem does not just lie with Lopetegui.
Surprisingly little depth at the Bernabéu
At this point last year, Ronaldo was lamenting to any journalist than would listen the lack of experienced depth on the bench, with Álvaro Morata and James Rodríguez having been moved on, as well as his compatriot Pepe. The extra attacking options would have been welcome then and would be welcome now.
Even if Ronaldo was not directly replaced in the summer - with every respect to the excellent Mariano Diaz - there is a sense that more work could have been done to give Lopetegui realistic bench options. Now, Barcelona have greater depth outside their XI, when the exact opposite appeared to be the case a year ago.
Leaders Sevilla find their range
Champions Barça have stumbled themselves recently but even while winning just one in the last four, have a total of 19 goals, which is seven more than Madrid. Surprise leaders Sevilla have 18 of their own, which shows that a team can be fluent even in a supposedly-transitional spell. Ironically, Pablo Machín's side might not have their current blend of attacking talent had Florentino Pérez not invoked his club's preferential option clause on Mariano to put the block on a move to Andalucía.
The talent is there, so Lopetegui doesn't have much time to turn things around. With the manner of his arrival and his lack of club pedigree, he doesn't have much of a reputation to fall back on either.