Zidane's successor faces high bar, doubts about stars
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane had barely finished announcing that he was leaving Real Madrid when speculation began about who would succeed him.
Twenty-four hours later, both Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino and Germany coach Joachim Loew — two of the top names rumored to be on Madrid's list of candidates — have said they are staying put.
Pochettino said Friday that his "commitment is total" to Tottenham. He signed a five-year contract extension last week.
Loew, who is preparing Germany to defend its World Cup title in Russia, said "it's not an issue for me. I'm at the World Cup now. I can completely rule it out now."
Other coaches that Madrid president Florentino Perez supposedly is considering include Chelsea's Antonio Conte, exiting Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and former Madrid player Jose Maria "Guti" Gutierrez.
While the Madrid job is one of soccer's most coveted posts, its next coach will have some hurdles to tackle.
STARS IN DOUBT
The biggest worry for any coach coming to the Spanish capital will be the uncertain future of the team's top stars.
Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale appear to be mulling an exit, at least according to statements they made just moments after Madrid beat Liverpool in last weekend's Champions League final.
Ronaldo put a huge damper on Madrid's celebrations by appearing to speak of his time at Madrid as having reached its end.
"In the next few days I'll give the fans an answer because they are the ones who have always been by my side," Ronaldo said. "It was very beautiful to be with Madrid."
Ronaldo said he would clear up his future once he joins the Portuguese national team next week as it prepares for the World Cup.
Bale, who scored twice as a substitute to beat Liverpool 3-1, was more explicit in stating his desire to get more playing time after a season during which he lost his spot in the starting 11.
Midfielder Francisco "Isco" Alarcon has also complained about not enjoying the same untoucbable status as Ronaldo, defender Sergio Ramos or midfielder Luka Modric.
Zidane could hardly have set the bar any higher with three straight European Cups.
Still, the Frenchman leaves a Madrid team that woefully underperformed in both the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey this season.
It is likely that only his status as fan favorite from his playing days at Madrid and his titles from the previous two seasons kept Zidane in his job through the first six months of last season, until the team finally found its form in the Champions League.
Madrid finished in third place in the league, a whopping 17 points adrift champion Barcelona. In the Copa del Rey, the team was eliminated at home by a modest Leganes in the quarterfinals, a moment which Zidane said was the worst of his coaching stint with the club.
Whoever inherits the team will have to improve its work ethic to face the weekly grind of games in the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey if it hopes to dethrone Barcelona from both domestic competitions.
Zidane has been the biggest public defender of Karim Benzema, fending off calls from fans and the local sports media to bench the struggling striker.
Benzema scored only five times in 32 league appearances this season, his lowest mark since arriving at Madrid in 2009.
If the club doesn't sign a replacement for Benzema this offseason, then its next coach will have to help him recover his best form.
Madrid tried to rejuvenate its squad last year by bringing in a group of young Spanish players, including defenders Theo Hernandez and Jesus Vallejo, midfielders Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente, and forward Borja Mayoral.
But none earned a spot in Zidane's starting lineup or his group of preferred backups.
Madrid's in-coming coach will have to bring those players into the fold so their careers don't stagnate any further.