It’s been a strange old season for Real Madrid.
After Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo had departed last summer, this was always going to be a transitional time for Los Blancos, but even the most seasoned of Spanish football watchers will have been surprised at what’s unfolded at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Julen Lopetegui’s appointment could’ve been handled a whole lot better, and there’s no doubt at all that his removal as head coach for the Spanish national team on the eve of the 2018 World Cup contributed to an earlier than expected exit from the tournament for La Roja.
It’s safe to say that things didn’t go according to plan, and as early as Lopetegui’s first competitive game – a European Super Cup final loss to Atletico Madrid – the alarm bells were ringing.
A staunch refusal to play certain squad members clearly didn’t go down well in the corridors of power either, and when eternal rivals, Barcelona, humiliated Real 5-1 in the first El Clasico of the campaign, it was time to pack up and leave.
Antonio Conte was heavily rumoured to be the next in line to take charge, but a broad side in the media towards the Italian from Sergio Ramos appeared to persuade the board into a rethink.
With no other standout candidates available, and with Florentino Perez hoping for a Zidane MKII, he installed Castilla coach, Santiago Solari, as a temporary stand in.
With rules dictating that a decision on whether to make him permanent had to be made within a fortnight, to an extent, Perez’s hands were tied.
🙈 0-3 vs Barcelona— footballscores.com (@footballscores) March 6, 2019
😓 0-1 vs Barcelona
😳 1-4 vs Ajax
👊 Solari is on a tightrope, but he's no quitter! pic.twitter.com/gPiNEXRUDk
The Argentinian had made a difference in the dressing room, however, and in the end it seemed to be the most sensible decision, given how well Solari knew the club.
Results in the main have been good, except Barcelona have come back to haunt the club once again.
A 1-1 first leg draw at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey semi-final left Los Blancos in the box seat for qualification for the final, however, a glut of missed chances in the return allowed Barca to storm the Bernabeu with a 3-0 win and a chance at their fifth successive Copa del Rey.
Just 72 hours later, and for the first time in Barcelona’s 120-year history, they returned to Madrid for a second successive Clasico, this time in La Liga.
The outcome was the same, though at least Real played better in a 1-0 defeat.
If that weren’t bad enough, a comprehensive 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Ajax on Tuesday saw the Champions League holders lose their grasp of a trophy they’d won three seasons in a row.
Simply put, no Los Blancos coach is ever going to survive a season where they’re unable to beat the Catalans in three separate meetings, plus an early exit from Europe. So, who will replace Solari at the end of the 2018/19 season?
Let’s take a look.
The odds have been slashed on the Special One making a return to the Spanish capital.
Out of work again after his sacking at Manchester United, he retains the affection of Perez and, crucially, knows how the club works.
Those players opposed to his methods from his previous tenure (Ronaldo, Pepe, Casillas et al) have, by and large, left the club, though Ramos retains an intense dislike of him and could well scupper any deal.
Training a younger, hungrier group of players will no doubt suit the Portuguese, and he wasn’t backwards in coming forwards during a recent media appearance when asked about Real’s current situation.
His comments and general demeanour have seen his odds come in to 11/10 favourite with Betfair, and though he wouldn’t necessarily be the right appointment at this stage, there are cogent reasons why he could still be installed in the position.
Daniel Levy should be getting worried. With Tottenham falling just short again this season, it wouldn’t be the worst timing for Mauricio Pochettino to move on to pastures new.
Moving into the new White Hart Lane is on the immediate horizon now, almost a year late, and there’s also a genuine chance of Gareth Bale returning to north London, ironically from Madrid.
There’s certainly enough about the Lilywhites’ project for the Argentinian to still be enthused… but they are not, and will never be Real Madrid.
Having turned Los Blancos down once, ‘Poch’ will understand that if he does so again, they won’t be coming back a third time.
It’s now or never, and Paddy Power have him at 11/4 to make a summer switch to a warmer climate.
At 9/1 apiece with Paddy Power Massimiliano Allegri and Joachim Low are the outsiders of the group, but both can be considered as viable targets.
One has to question Allegri’s desire to remain at Juventus particularly, given that the Bianconeri keep waltzing Serie A. Any challenge arguably only arrives on their Champions League nights, whereas taking the reins at the Bernabeu presents a whole different series of possibilities.
Low has been seen in Madrid on a few occasions recently, and that’s unlikely to be a coincidence. Suggestions that he’s there to run the rule over Toni Kroos don’t hold water either because it’s abundantly clear what the German brings to the Los Blancos midfield.
Just like Allegri, his interest in the Madrid hot-seat will be dictated purely by whether he feels his work with Die Mannschaft is finished.
After a particularly poor World Cup and UEFA Nations League, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to walk away at this point.
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