La Liga: Defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico may mark demise of Julen Lopetegui's tumultuous Real Madrid career
Long-time watchers of football will tell you that karma is a dog from hell and Lopetegui was primed to be bit. Fast forward to the present and Lopetegui has lost as many games as he has won.
Contrary to popular belief, poet laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best book qualitatively is neither One Hundred Years of Solitude nor Love in the Time of Cholera. No. In fact, it's a 100-page lesser-known novella called Chronicles of a Death Foretold. It starts with the words: 'On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.' This parallel form this book will lend you an idea of what Real Madrid are feeling right now ahead of their trip to Barcelona.
In this context, Catholic-centric Barcelona have been Real Madrid's bishop, and often read the last rites to their title challenge with this very fixture, in the Camp Nou. Real Madrid find themselves at the end of a line of a floatation device, sitting ugly at 8th on the table, below the likes of Levante (7th), Valladolid (6th), and Alaves (4th). Barcelona look down up the Crow's Nest of La Liga's galleon, perched in 2nd position.
The passage continues as: 'He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant, he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.' This is an accurate description of Real Madrid manager, Julen Lopetegui's hopes and aspirations.
This damnation wasn't one fell swoop of the sword, no. It had all the malevolent, tight-lipped tension, the momentum of guillotine slowly rising. "If you are looking for a sunken man, don't look at me," Lopetegui quipped at the post-match conference vs Levante. The great leveller, VAR (video assistant referee), in Real Madrid's fixture against lowly Levante, adjudged Raphael Varane to have been guilty of handling the football in the penalty box. With the resulting penalty, Levante went 2-0 up at the royal Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid's backyard. The insult stung like an ungloved, backhanded slap.
On the touchline, Lopetegui was biting his inner cheer, hands in an expensive pocket of an expensive suit, ordered to fit. In spirit, he looked like a jittery David Byrne on the stage of Stop Making Sense, with apparels thrice his size, but with none of the self-actualisation and presence. Instead, the way the match panned out made his head look smaller than it is. "A culmination of misfortune," Lopetegui called it.
"I expect to keep breathing. I don't think I'm about to die," said Julen Lopetegui at the press conference with the look of a man staring down a wall. "We have a game that is sufficiently attractive without having to think about these types of stories. They don't help me to prepare for the game." It certainly doesn't, especially at a cut-throat football club that's rife with the cases and quality of bitter almonds, Marquez associated unrequited love. The story wouldn't be as lamentable if there wasn't mixed with double-crossing.
If we were to play a word association game, where football fans were asked to state a word/s that comes first to their mind when you say another; note when you say 'sabotage' most will say 'Sergio Ramos' in response. The Real Madrid captain, unsurprisingly, has been reported to back the motion by president Florentino Perez, to replace Julen Lopetegui. Ramos has been Brutus-in-chief to the backstabbing of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez.
This is the same man who publicly backed Lopetegui's decision to jump ship to Real Madrid while serving his appointment as Spain's World Cup manager. Worth remembering, that like Marquez's book, the fate of the protagonist was revealed right at the beginning. This incident sunk any World Cup hopes of a rather talented armada of Spanish players, with many playing at their peak. Long-time watchers of football will tell you that karma is a dog from hell and Lopetegui, by his actions over the summer, was primed to be bit. Fast forward to the present and Julen Lopetegui has lost as many games as he has won.
There were problems that are fundamental too. Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Thibaut Courtois, among others are trailing behind on their fitness. This shows both a lack of authority on the part of Lopetegui and the resistance of the players to take him seriously. The Spanish media too, not to be outdone when it come sto undermining a manager, have already listed the name of potential replacements. A list that consists of Antonio Conte, Roberto Martinez, Michael Laudrup and Laurent Blanc.
The narrator in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, lets us contend with critical points of culpability, and moral debates of collective responsibility, and lifts, with his words the lewd, innards of patriarchy that's at the rot of society. Much in the same way, the unholy irreverence to loyalty and patience of club President Florentino Perez in the handling of Julen Lopetegui looks to bring to the fore all the worms in Real Madrid's glossy woodwork. This has seldom been more apparent than now. The last time Real Madrid were in such a rut both of Wesley Sneijder and Andres Iniesta had a full head of hair, and neither of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo featured in a Clasico (while neither Iniesta or Sneijder will grow back their hair, a repeat of the latter will happen tonight).
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde earnestly offered in light of the absence of Ronaldo and Messi that "The Clasico existed before that. The Clasico has always been the Clasico, and there were even flying pigs."
What would make pigs fly would be a Real Madrid win tonight, against an upsurging Barcelona team. Lionel Messi may be out injured with his hand on a sling, but there's the attacking collective of Luis Suarez (scorer of six goals against the Spanish giants since his debut in the blue and red of Barcelona, more than any other player in the same period), Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele Barcelona can draw upon. Barcelona are likely to miss the stopper abilities of Samuel Umtiti, who is also out injured. But that will provide little concern at the top end.
Barcelona have scored the last 21 times they have played against Real and are out to equal the best El Clasico scoring streak, currently sitting on 48 goals. Real held that record from 1959 to 1969. Barcelona also remain undefeated in 41 league games in the Camp, winning 33 and drawing 8, something not achieved since 1977. This just goes to show the recovery the Catalan club has made, coming out of the shadow of their fierce rivals.
Beside Josep Samitier street stands a monument to magical realism, the stage to this Sunday's El Clasico, the 120,000-seater football theatre of Camp Nou. If you are a Barcelona CF fan, you can't afford not to believe you can win the title. Your fellow fans would call you a heathen, a man who is blind to the opportunities of redemption, romance, loss, miracles and in this case, revenge is seen there over the years. The ingredients of the plots boiling within Camp Nou's steep cauldron rim could match a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Lopetegui's story looks to be short and bittersweet like Marquez's aforementioned novella.
This is the third year Real Madrid have failed to reach the final and the second in a row they have faced elite English opposition and been found wanting.
Champions League semi-final preview: Madrid bank on experience against Chelsea; City, PSG vie for first title
Ahead of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, Firstpost takes a look at the major talking points from both ties.
With only four matches left of the season, Ramos might not play again for Real Madrid given he is yet to renew his contract, which expires this summer.