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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Barcelona v Real Madrid: Zinedine Zidane's exit appears prophetic as pressure piles on Julen Lopetegui ahead of el clasico

Former manager decided to leave the club after three successful years and his successor is so far struggling

Julen Lopetegui is a man under pressure due to Real Madrid's stuttering start to the season. AFP
Julen Lopetegui is a man under pressure due to Real Madrid's stuttering start to the season. AFP

In his playing days, as the cerebral controller of the space between midfield and attack, Zinedine Zidane was never so effective as when he glided away from trouble.

He would plant the sole of his boot gently on a moving ball, turn his body away from opponents and smoothly reverse the direction of play. The manoeuvre became known as the 'Zizou roulette’.

The longer Zidane is not the head coach of Real Madrid, the club he enhanced as a player and guided to three successive European Cups as a novice manager, the more nifty and elegant seems his side-step away from that job.

He stood down in May, days after guiding the club to Uefa Champions League triumph in Kiev. He had put his foot on the ball, looked up, seen treacherous paths ahead and rouletted in another direction.

Quite how vividly Zidane saw the problems to come only he knows, but five months on from his surprise resignation, the European champions go to Barcelona for el clasico in the sort of form that points very firmly towards an imminent exit for the man who replaced Zidane, Julen Lopetegui.

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The new manager has already set some uncomfortable records: no Madrid goals over an eight-hour stretch that covered four defeats in five matches, the last of them the 2-1 loss at home to Levante last weekend; only six victories from 13 games in charge.

To diagnose the barren spell, it is hard not to start with the other major departure of the close-season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus, an event that Zidane needed no sixth-sense to foresee, having heard the player speak with studied wistfulness about the possible end of his dazzling, potent time at Madrid within minutes of the final whistle of the Champions League final against Liverpool.

At the same moment, Gareth Bale talked of wanting a change. The Welshman is still a Madrid player, but even five years from his arrival in Spain, earmarked as the man to take on the baton of responsibility from the older Ronaldo, he is not yet the 40-plus goals a season spearhead that, consistently fit, he might have become.

There was no marquee signing in the summer, except perhaps for Thibaut Courtois, recruited from Chelsea to fill a position the new manager seems unconvinced needed filling.

Lopetegui, who served Madrid - and Barcelona - in the 1990s as a back-up goalkeeper, has alternated the gloves between Keylor Navas and Courtois, a strategy that pleases neither man and easily appears, in the troubled circumstances, the first of many entries in a catalogue of uncertainty, like the shifts between four in midfield or a front-three with greater width.

Lopetegui's back catalogue of elite managerial work is limited, in club football, to his trophyless period with Porto, 18 months until January 2016. Madridistas are yet to detect strong dogmas or a distinctive Lopetegui style.

He was not the first choice for Madrid and he was hardly eased in without fanfare; he lost his previous job managing Spain, sacked abruptly in June, because of the timing of the announcement, two days before the World Cup, that he would be taking over Madrid in July.

The Spain episode may have ended controversially but his two successful years in charge of the national team did give Madrid recommendations. Not least that Lopetegui knew how to stimulate the likes of Isco and Marco Asensio, of Madrid and Spain, and that he rubbed along well with Sergio Ramos, captain of club and country.

Three months in, the form of Asensio, 22, is now a telling barometer of Madrid’s slouch under Lopetegui. The winger, with just one goal so far, has seemed diminished.

Isco, 26, appeared the other clear beneficiary of a restyling of the front section of the team post-Ronaldo. He remains an inventive creator, although the struggles of October, when Madrid lost to Sevilla, CSKA Moscow, Alaves and at home to Levante have affected him, too.

The build-up to Sunday afternoon’s collision in Catalonia also featured forensic scrutiny of what appeared a curt dialogue between the player and Lopetegui when Isco was substituted early in the second half of the 2-1 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League five days ago.

“I am not angry with Isco,” said Lopetegui, who maintains he “is not a broken manager”. But he knows feelers have been put out to alternatives for his job, from within the club, namely Santi Solari, the former Madrid player who coaches Castilla, effectively the Real reserves, and abroad, namely Antonio Conte, out of work since leaving Chelsea.

Lopetegui knows above all that Sunday’s contest is a watershed moment, and a towering hurdle that Zidane saw from a long way off.