MADRID — After the embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Levante at the Bernabeu, the final whistle was followed immediately by prolonged whistles from those angry supporters still left inside the half-empty stadium and traditional white handkerchief protest calling for the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui.
Lopetegui has lost five games in all competitions since taking over this summer — including the last three in a row — and has presided over the club’s second worst goal drought of 481 minutes, broken only by Marcelo’s consolation vs. Levante following Jose Luis Morales’ opener and a penalty from Roger Marti.
At the postmatch news conference, the former Spain coach reached for the excuse of bad luck when trying to explain his team’s poor form.
“We had 34 or 35 shots at goal, 14 on target, nine corners, four balls off the woodwork, a goal disallowed,” Lopetegui claimed, padding the numbers just a little. “Statistics do not count much in football, it is goals that count. But we attacked a lot, and attacked very well. I am sure that football will soon start giving to us what it is taking away at the moment.”
Another stat doing the rounds was that five of the last six Madrid coaches to lose three consecutive games were fired — with Bernd Schuster only avoiding that fate as his team eased off having secured the 2007-08 La Liga title.
After the game, Madrid’s director of institutional relations Emilio Butragueno was asked if Lopetegui’s job was safe and somewhat avoided the question, saying: “We are all feeling down, these are sad moments. This is a blow; we did not expect this result. We must congratulate Levante, who played well. There must be calm. We all need to try and remain calm. We are sad.”
Butragueno also declined to give an opinion on Lopetegui’s decision not to risk Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema in the starting XI after their recent injuries. “These are technical questions and choices that are Julen’s to make,” he said, diplomatically. “We should not get into that.”
There were reports that president Florentino Perez had gone down to the dressing room to spend some time talking with Lopetegui one-on-one after the game — a conversation that was still ongoing when vice-captain Marcelo came through the mixed zone.
“We are with [Lopetegui] to the death,” said Marcelo, reaching for an unfortunate Spanish phrase often used on these occasions. “He is very clear with us and the relationship is very good with the players. We must let the boss work.
“The pressure of playing for Madrid is tremendous. We must show our faces on the pitch, and before the cameras. We are not afraid, but we are worried.”
And last into the mixed zone, as usual, was club captain Sergio Ramos, who had played his part in the defensive shambles of the first half but was unable to inspire his side to a comeback. Ramos accepted Perez had been to the dressing room, yet would not disclose what had been discussed.
“It would not be good manners to tell you what happened,” he said. “The president always goes down there, and we speak. As captain, we talk a lot. I always say that it is never good for anyone to sack a coach. We must remain calm.”
Castilla boss Santi Solari is the obvious internal candidate to step in if required at short notice, and the former Argentina international is reportedly being considered ahead of more experienced names like Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte and Michel — all currently out of work.
But the upcoming schedule, with Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday and then El Clasico at Camp Nou next Sunday, count in Lopetegui’s favour — the last Madrid coach to leave the week of a Clasico was Schuster, who was fired days before the game in 2008 for saying his team had no chance of beating Barcelona.
The way Real are playing, that may be true now, but it’s also been some years since they changed coach mid-season. The last time was four seasons back when Zinedine Zidane was promoted from the Castilla youth team to replace a floundering Rafa Benitez.
Since then, Zidane’s three-peat Champions League record has ensured the silverware continues to flow at the Bernabeu — while a 2016-17 title also kept Perez extra happy. Lopetegui will need match at least one of these achievements if he has any hope of clinging onto his job — though he may not last beyond next week if things don’t turn around soon.