Why Julen Lopetegui is the catalyst to Gareth Bale's future
The winds of change are set to sweep through the Santiago Bernabéu this summer as Zinedine Zidane looks to rebuild Real Madrid in the image of the team that dominated Europe during his previous managerial tenure in the Spanish capital.
Gareth Bale is expected to headline a list of departures from the under-achieving squad. And while the Wales talisman was once in great demand, his current lack of form and confidence no longer justifies the financial investment required to separate him from his lucrative contract with Los Blancos.
Ever since he arrived at Real Madrid in the summer of 2013 for what was then a world-record transfer fee, Bale's future has been widely-speculated upon, with the biggest clubs in the world continually linked with his signature. Bale turns 30 this summer, and while the increasing injury concerns now curtail the turn of pace that helped make his name at Tottenham Hotspur, he still has plenty left to offer.
A return to the English Premier League appears increasingly likely, with Manchester United and former club Spurs reportedly offering salvation from his current state of Spanish limbo. A place in the UEFA Champions League final, compared with United's failure to even qualify for the world's premier club competition, suggests that Mauricio Pochettino may have the advantage in this particular battle.
But there will also be lucrative and more exotic offers on the table for Bale. And while there will be obvious advantages to moves to the United States or China, Bale still has too much left to offer at the highest level to settle for one final payday playing at a lower standard of football.
However, there is a twist to consider, which may prove to be the catalyst to an intriguing European move.
This time last year, Julen Lopetegui had his mind firmly fixed on leading Spain into the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia. In position since July 2016, Lopetegui had guided his country through the qualification campaign. Spain topped Group G with nine wins and a draw from their 10 qualifying games, scoring an impressive 36 goals in the process.
World Cup heartbreak
Lopetegui had cut his managerial teeth with the Spanish intermediate teams, leading the U19, U20 and U21 teams prior to his return to club management in 2014 with Portuguese giants FC Porto. His reputation as a manager was increasing at a significant rate following his elevation to the Spanish national team, and it was no surprise to see Real Madrid turn to him following the departure of Zinedine Zidane on the eve of the World Cup.
However, as Lopetegui's post-tournament switch to the Santiago Bernabéu become public, he suffered the ignominy of being relinquished of his position with the national team on the eve of the biggest competition of his career. His emotional acceptance of the situation confirmed the severity of his mistake, and his one shot of leading his country to World Cup glory was lost in that moment - after two long years of preparation.
Despite the professional and personal setback, the challenge of Real Madrid awaited him. Lopetegui suffered a 4-2 defeat to city rivals Atlético Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup in his first competitive match, but they won his opening three LaLiga games.
A UEFA Champions League victory followed, but after beating Espanyol 1-0 in LaLiga in September, Lopetegui would not win another league fixture.
His 10th and final LaLiga game was a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in his only El Clasico. The embarrassment of the result coincided with poor form and performances, and he was dismissed following the heavy reverse at the Camp Nou.
His record of six wins in 14 competitive games failed to endear him to a club that had dominated Europe prior to his appointment.
Belief in Bale
But while the overall stats make miserable reading for Lopetegui, it was under his control that Bale established himself in the Real Madrid starting line-up. The Welshman started in the three opening LaLiga victories over Getafe, Girona and Leganés, together with the Champions League wins over AS Roma and Viktoria Plzen.
With Bale injured for the visit to CSKA Moscow and limping off during LaLiga fixtures against Atlético Madrid and Deportivo Alavés, Real Madrid dropped points in all three games. As he returned to fitness and the starting line-up, Lopetegui's future at the club was already in doubt, and his departure was confirmed when his side were hit for five in the fixture that no manager can afford to lose.
Lopetegui was recently linked with a potential move to German champions Bayern Munich. And while the appointment appears unlikely considering it has been denied by the Bavarian giants, the news suggests that he will return to football with a club competing in the Champions League this summer.
Lopetegui's career started long before Real Madrid, and it will not be defined by his brief period at the helm in the Spanish capital.
It is also clear that Bale was an integral part of his plans at Real Madrid. And should Lopetegui find himself back at a similar level next season, a reunion with Bale could be to the benefit of both parties.
A lot has been made of what club and country Bale will find himself in next season, but few have considered the manager he would be best suited to play for. The stats suggest that waiting for Lopetegui's decision could yet be his best option.Published 09 May 2019, 23:26 IST