Real Madrid travel to Barcelona to take on their arch-rivals in the first Clasico of the season. The difference in positioning for the two teams and the two coaches could not be bigger. Ernesto Valverde is in a calm place but his style of play has been under question even if it has produced the results. At the other end, Julen Lopetegui, fresh into a club managerial career, is striving to keep his job going. In terms of team news, there is no Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi for the first time in a Clasico since 2007. How does that impact things? How could the eventual outcome of the fixture decide Lopetegui’s future? IndianExpress.com spoke to former Real Madrid midfielder Steve McManaman who spent four years in the Spanish capital while winning eight titles despite fighting for a place in the lineup due to the Galactico policy under club president Florentino Perez.
Real Madrid went without scoring in five straight games. What do you think is missing?
It is going to be difficult for Real Madrid tonight and Barcelona will be favourites. Real Madrid selling Ronaldo in the summer has made things hard for them and finding a replacement has been a big problem for them. The team has lost the manager from last season (Zinedine Zidane) and they’ve lost Ronaldo – who is the best player and they’ve not replaced the best player. A lot of players who had a long season last year went straight into the World Cup and come in with little rest. Some of them are nearing 30 or are over and that’s when you start to detract a little bit. There are a number of factors that have put Real Madrid in this precarious position.
Can a loss see Julen Lopetegui out of job?
Yes. I think he’s under immense pressure and the team are not playing well. They didn’t play well in the midweek in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen. He didn’t celebrate when they scored goals and lost in the last European game against CSKA Moscow. So I think he’s under immense pressure, a loss would see him lose his job.
How much of an impact can Luka Modric’s slow start to the season have on Real Madrid?
It takes a lot out of players to have a long season last year, then you go straight into a long World Cup and that leaves you with only two weeks rest. It has a bigger effect on the bigger players and Luka Modric is incredibly important for Croatia. He is a superstar back in his homeland and was treated like a hero when he went back. It will play its part in their form this year.
How do Barcelona cope with Messi’s absence?
They’re not going to be as potent as they normally are because he’s one of the best players in the world if not the best player. Barcelona played very well in midweek against Inter Milan without him. I think they’re more equipped to play without Messi than Real Madrid are without Cristiano. The fact that they’re home and they’ve got 100,000 fans on their side will help them. It does make things easier for Real Madrid but Barcelona still have good players. So if you’ve got your best player missing, the best time to play Real Madrid is when they’re struggling and the best time is to play at home.
You scored against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2002. Can you talk about the emotions and feeling you get to score in a fixture such as this?
The most important thing is to get the win as we did in the first leg. I was incredibly happy as you could imagine, to win the game 2-0 away from home at such a huge occasion. When you play for a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona, people expect you to win the league and to win the Champions League. So when we won 2-0 away from home, we expected to reach the final and we did. [Real Madrid went on to win the Champions League that season by beating Bayer Leverkusen in the final]
How do you recall your life and your career in Madrid having spent four years there?
It was a fantastic time of my career (in Madrid). I thought the city was incredible, I had a wonderful time there, the team that I played for was brilliant, I have a lot of friends in Madrid and it is something that I will always remember. Then you win these trophies, you win the Champions League – we won the seventh and eighth Champions League and people talk about it. It is something that will always live with you.
How do you cope at a new club, new culture, new language – something Gareth Bale has had to do?
First when you arrive in the city it is very daunting because you are lonely, you have to speak and learn the language. It is very different now than when I arrived because now you have interpreters and a lot more people who will help you out. But the culture is a big change – new house, new furniture, new surroundings and at a place you’ve never been to before. The first six months are very challenging, difficult and hard. But you have to get on with it because that’s what you signed up for.
Do you see a different club policy at Real Madrid in regards to transfers?
I think the club are more than happy to spend the money but the players were not available. They spent 35 million Euros on Thibaut Courtois because he was then going to be on a free contract. If (Kylian) Mbappe was available or Eden Hazard was available, they would have bought them so the approach is not very different. Real Madrid’s finances are strong and they’re happy to spend the money on players they can get. The players they’ve got are very good and they’re players of the future but they need players for now and that’s the biggest problem.
Early into the season but there are a few teams vying for the top spot in the La Liga table. Thoughts?
It is very refreshing to see teams challenging Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. It is whether they can sustain this for the rest of the season will be interesting to see. There is Espanyol, Alaves, Sevilla and Real Betis playing good football. But it is a long season and I would expect the likes of Barcelona and a big team to take the title. Having said that, let’s hope the others can keep the competition going for the rest of the season because league is much better when more teams are trying to win.
What is your prediction for the Clasico?
I think both teams will score and I will go a 3-1 in favour of Barcelona.
What are your thoughts on La Liga playing a game in the United States?
I see the points being made on both sides. La Liga want to take a game there because the fans can’t travel or can’t afford to watch a live game. Ofcourse there is a lot of opposition from those within Spain to keep the game at home. So hopefully both sides can sit down and come to a compromise. I don’t think its a huge thing for the footballers to be honest.