The last time Real Madrid played in Africa, they were crowned world champions after defeating Argentina's San Lorenzo in 2014. They went into that game having won their last 21 matches. They were also world champions in 2016 and 2017 and are favourites to win the Fifa Club World Cup again in December in Abu Dhabi. But, ahead of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey game on the north African coast against Melilla, Madrid are reeling.
Football’s most successful club have lost four of their last five games including three consecutive games in La Liga for the first time since May 2009.
Julen Lopetegui, 52, installed for this season to replace Zinedine Zidane, was dismissed after Sunday’s 5-1 "manita" by a rampant Barcelona. He lasted 132 days. There is considerable sympathy for Lopetegui, manager of the Spanish national side going into the World Cup finals, for, as the front page of Monday’s Marca argued "This isn't just Julen’s fault". Lopetegui’s father was not wrong when he said his son’s side had had 50 goals taken out of them with the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus over the summer.
Madrid’s official view is that “the board considers there to be a large disparity between the quality within the Real Madrid squad, which boasts eight nominees for this year's Ballon d’Or award – an unprecedented number in the club’s history – and the team’s results to date.
Former Real Madrid player Santiago Solari will take temporary charge. The Argentine is cerebral, popular and respected.
“My objective is to win tomorrow,” he said confidently of the game in Melilla. “I’ll do what I can. I’ve been at this club doing other things, playing, sweating. Madrid is bigger than all of us. I just want to be part of it.”
Despite speculation linking Madrid to other managers including Antonio Conte, The National understands that Madrid have been keen on the Spanish manager of the Belgium national teal Roberto Martinez.
Madrid will travel to Melilla, based in the Spanish enclave of the same name, who sit second in Spain’s regional third division, with only one defeat from 13 games. It’s inconceivable that Madrid won’t progress to the last 16 of the Copa del Rey, since they have the second leg at home in a format which favours Spain’s biggest sides.
Melilla is an enclave of 4.7 square miles and sits on the north coast of Morocco with a population of 78,000. Along with its fellow Spanish enclave Ceuta, it is surrounded by high razor-wire fences to keep out the thousands of migrants who try to gain access – and thus a foothold in Europe. Ceuta’s football team were dissolved in 2012, but derbies between Ceuta and Melilla used to see both teams travel via the Spanish mainland to avoid travelling through Morocco, which claims both enclaves as their own. Each day, over 30,000 Moroccans cross the border to work or shop in Melilla and Ceuta. Nayim, who scored a last-minute goal in the 1995 European Cup Winners’ Cup final for Real Zaragoza against Arsenal, is from Ceuta.
CD Melilla play at the 7,000 capacity Alvarez Claro Stadium – 7,000 thanks to temporary stands which have been brought in for the Madrid game. It’s close to the last statue of General Franco remaining in Spain. Franco used Melilla as a staging ground for his Nationalist rebellion in 1936.
Melilla usually entertain crowds of 2,000 and wins against fellow minnows Yeclano (on penalties), CD Tudelano and Ontinyent have given them the reward of the biggest game in their history. Fans with season tickets pay as little as €5 (Dh21) for their season tickets – just 27 cents per league game - and 5,000 fans hold them. They will get reduced-priced tickets for the Madrid game, while those who don’t buy season tickets will pay between €30-70.
Elsewhere, holders Barcelona face third division Cultural Leonesa and Atletico Madrid meet Catalan third-tier side Sant Andreu who come from Barcelona. They are all David against Goliath matches, but recent happenings at Real Madrid mean that what should have been a walkover has the faint possibility that, like David, underdog Melilla might bring the giant down.
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