Despite never losing a game whilst in the Spanish national team dugout, Julen Lopetegui was relieved of his duties the day before the World Cup began due to an agreement to take over at Spanish club Real Madrid, and Wednesday night’s UEFA Super Cup provides the ideal setting for him to make his bow in the ‘Los Merengues’ hotseat.
The Super Cup annually pits last season’s Champions League winners opposite the Europa League winners, and with Real Madrid picking up their fourth title in five years, will go head to head with Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid at the Lilleküla Stadium in Tallinn, Estonia.
With last season’s lacklustre campaign only being somewhat rescued following the aforementioned Champions League triumph over Liverpool in Kiev, Lopetegui has his work cut out if he is to restore faith and harmony back at Spain’s most powerful club, and achieve a more stable domestic campaign this year.
A feature of Zidane’s last season at Madrid was their domestic form. After embarrassing Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate to lift the Spanish Supercopa, they only won two of their opening five league games, drawing two – including a 1-1 draw at home to Levante – and losing the other at home to Quique Setién’s Real Betis, 0-1.
Although their form picked up from there, winning six while losing only one of their next eight, a 0-3 thrashing at the Santiago Bernabéu at the hands of Barcelona ultimately ended their aspirations of retaining their La Liga title.
Their domestic season was then effectively over in January after their Copa Del Rey quarter-final exit to Leganés, confirming Zidane would only have a third consecutive Champions League title to play for. And while they would be successful in that regard, they did not have it easy.
They stared elimination in the face opposite Juventus in the quarter-final, and would have been taken to extra-time had the referee not awarded a dubious last-minute penalty, and only eliminated Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in the semi-finals on the merit of a single goal.
As for the final, the title was pretty much handed to them by Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, along with a moment of brilliance from Gareth Bale, and five days later, ‘Zizou’ walked away.
Meanwhile, since Lopetegui’s arrival, Cristiano Ronaldo has departed to Italy, signing for Juventus, leaving his side depleted of their main source of goals. However, all may not be doom and gloom for the side from the capital.
As we saw with Barcelona last season, parting ways with someone as egotistical as Ronaldo may work out for the best.
Following Neymar’s exit, new Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde was forced in to a rethink, and deployed a more balanced 4-4-2 formation, guiding his team to a domestic double.
Lopetegui is now faced with the same conundrum, but with Ronaldo gone, underappreciated players such as World Cup runner-up Luka Modrić and Welsh winger Gareth Bale may now have a share of the spotlight, and can show fully what they are capable of, while at the same time receiving the plaudits they deserve.
It is compelling that players like Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitić played their best season to date with less big name players in the team, and although Florentino Pérez is in the market for a new ‘galactico’, with links to Eden Hazard and Neymar prominent, the team as a whole may benefit if less celebrated squad players such as Isco or Marco Asensio are thrown in to the starting line-up.
Thinking back to the World Cup, Lopetegui’s importance was on full show with their dire performances under interim head coach Fernando Hierro.
Spain only won two of their four games at the tournament and exited in the round of 16 stage, while Lopetegui showed that he has faith in and trusts both Isco and Asensio, with both featuring regularly in the side under his leadership.
While getting the better of Simeone is easier said than done, victory on Wednesday would provide a massive boost to a side going through a major transitional phase, while also answering back to Barcelona following their Supercopa victory over Sevilla last Sunday night.