Lopetegui's job, coaching future, on the line in 'clasico'

ABS-CBN Sports on Oct 26, 2018 07:57 AM
Lopetegui's job, coaching future, on the line in 'clasico'
Real's Gareth Bale, left, leaves the field as Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui looks him during the Champions League, group G, soccer match between Real Madrid and Viktoria Plzen at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday Oct. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul White)

By Tales Azzoni, Associated Press

MADRID (AP) — Even though Real Madrid had just won a match, Julen Lopetegui still wasn't smiling.

The Madrid coach sported a gloomy look and spoke softly as he tried to explain the team's narrow 2-1 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League.

It was as if he knew he wasn't off the hook just yet, that he still had a lot of work to do to save his job — and possibly even his coaching future.

"I'm not smiling because I don't smile a lot, that's who I am," the 52-year-old Lopetegui said when told he looked dejected after Tuesday's match . "I'm fine, really. I'm happy with the victory. As things get calmer, we will be improving."

To persevere, Lopetegui will likely have to find a way to succeed in the "clasico" against league leader Barcelona on Sunday at Camp Nou. Not an easy challenge, but one he may have to overcome to avoid being fired only a few months into his first coaching job with a major club.

Lopetegui's status as a top coach will be highly contested if he fails with Madrid not long after his abrupt departure from Spain's national team just before the World Cup. It would be another negative mark for a coach whose only other significant experience was a lackluster stint with Portuguese club Porto.

But for now, Madrid is back to winning after losing three of its last four matches in the Spanish league and dropping to seventh place.

On Tuesday, Madrid ended a five-match winless streak with the victory over Viktoria Plzen, but the team's performance was not good enough to ease the pressure on Lopetegui, who again was jeered after the match. It had also happened in the home loss to Levante in the Spanish league, when Madrid reached its worst scoring drought in history.

The club guaranteed him until the "clasico," but his presence after that remains largely in doubt.

"We have a very special game and we are really excited about it," said Lopetegui, who has coached Madrid to six wins, five losses and two draws. "We will prepare for it the best possible way."

A reserve goalkeeper for Spain at the 1994 World Cup, Lopetegui failed to win titles with Porto in his two seasons in Portugal from 2014-16. He was picked for the Spain job following success with the national team's youth squads, but there were many doubts about his potential.

He surpassed most expectations and turned Spain into a top contender, but it all ended just days before the World Cup when he was surprisingly fired for not telling federation officials he had accepted the job with Madrid.

He was criticized for the way he handled the situation and many eventually blamed him for Spain's disappointing World Cup performance, which culminated with a shootout loss to Russia in the round of 16.

It didn't help Lopetegui that Cristiano Ronaldo announced he was leaving the club to join Juventus not long after the coach was hired.

This year's "clasico" will be the first in 11 years without either Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, who broke his right arm in Barcelona's win over Sevilla last weekend.

It could also be the last with Lopetegui as Madrid coach.

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