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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

After the calm of Julen Lopetegui, Real Madrid preparing for the storm of Antonio Conte

First, the new man in must convince senior players at Madrid of the terms of his leadership

Real Madrid are preparing to hire Italian Antonio Conte to replace Julen Lopetegui. Reuters
Real Madrid are preparing to hire Italian Antonio Conte to replace Julen Lopetegui. Reuters

Real Madrid were on Monday making way for the appointment of their ninth different manager in less than 10 years. Given the club have won four European Cups in that time, not to mention a couple of Liga titles, you can see why the candidates keep coming even when they know the seat they are taking up has all the cogs and springs in its ejector mechanism fully oiled and serviced.

Sunday's 5-1 defeat at Barcelona has accelerated the departure of Julen Lopetegui, whose tenure began amid controversy - he was sacked as Spain’s manager on the eve of the World Cup when it became known he had agreed to join Madrid straight afterwards - and has since set unwanted records for underachievement, with as many losses as wins in his 14 games in charge. Madrid’s executives, instructed by club president Florentino Perez, have moved to hire Antonio Conte in his place.

Conte, the Italian who left Chelsea in July, is recommended by his availability, although there remains some outstanding litigation over his severance package from the London club he guided to a Premier League title in 2017, and, above all, for his stern authority. Perez is alarmed at a sense of drift, a lack of urgency in a Madrid side used to sustained success in the most prestigious competition - the Uefa Champions League - but falling behind the standards set by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid domestically. The club finished third, 17 points behind champions Barca, last May; they sit ninth in the table this morning.

Conte, whose exit from Chelsea was coloured by rancour over the club’s recruitment strategy and diminished relationships with key players, is enthusiastic about returning to elite management, although his preference would have been to have a full pre-season at the start of his next job. The circumstances prevent that at Madrid, but the club will promise their new man that resources are readied to refresh the squad substantially over the next two transfer windows.

First, the new man in must convince senior players at Madrid of the terms of his leadership. Sergio Ramos, the captain and guiding voice of the dressing-room appeared to anticipate the arrival of a new manager with martinet tendencies when, immediately after the humiliation at Camp Nou, he pointedly told reporters: “Respect is something a coach earns, and understanding the dressing-room is more important than tactical expertise. We have won everything with coaches I don’t need to name.”

Ramos left it to those who have chronicled his 13 years at the club to interpret who he meant. It is not a hard guess. His quartet of Champions League titles came under Carlo Ancelotti and Lopetegui’s predecessor, the Midas-touch Zinedine Zidane, men whose interaction with players tended to be unobtrusive. Ramos’ experience led him to believe Perez will act, after the brief reign of Lopetegui, according to a familiar pattern, which is to follow an apparently calmer coach with someone more combative. He did that when Manuel Pellegrini was replaced by Jose Mourinho in 2010. Mourinho won a Liga title during his three years at the Bernabeu, but clashed with senior players, including Ramos.

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Read more:

El clasico takeaways: Lights out for Lopetegui, but Real Madrid players have let him down

Report: Barcelona's Luis Suarez scores hat-trick to deal Real Madrid's Primera Liga title tilt big blow

Ian Hawkey: Zidane exit appears prophetic as pressure piles on Lopetegui

Barcelona v Real Madrid: Five facts you may not know about their history

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Conte’s fame for confrontation may be a little exaggerated, promoted by the fierce mask he wears on the touchline, but the footballers who won three Serie A titles under him at Juventus soon identified his red lines. "You either do what he says or you don't play," said Andrea Pirlo, the former Juve midfielder. Some of his champions from Chelsea, not least Diego Costa and David Luiz, players of status abruptly marginalised, would echo that.

Most, though, would speak up for Conte’s clarity as a tactician. At Juventus, who Conte led to the scudetto in 2012 six years after the club had been demoted to Serie B, he launched a renaissance. In his first job in England, he lifted Chelsea from mid-table to top of the league.

What happened at both clubs, either side of his solid spell in charge of the Italy national team, was that his relationship with his employers, the decision-makers, deteriorated after a year or so. Madrid’s bosses may want abrasive facets to the man they entrust to end the current crisis; they may also find they cannot dictate that he limits his creative conflicts only to the dressing-room and keeps them out of meetings in the boardroom.