The current La Liga season is one of muted expectation and no one person seems to personify the sentiment better than the latest Real Madrid interim coach, Santiago Solari.
Brought in to assuage the bruised ego of club president Florentino Perez—whose double-whammy mess up of hiring Julen Lopetegui away from the Spanish National Team on the eve of the World Cup, effectively wrecking that campaign, and then firing Julen from his club post a few months later, effectively unmooring his charges—Solari, Lopetegui’s assistant, has weathered the tumult as best he can by remaining a muted presence.
No one has great expectations that the Bernabeu crowd will resurge overnight, but what is palpable is that it seems very much more likely they will go into a tailspin. Similarly, most of us know the quality of play that La Liga represents, but few of us are hopeful that the level of play will climb back up to its rightful place soon.
Solari has kept Perez smiling by winning all three of the matches under his tenure: a 4-0 win over Mililla in the Copa del Rey, a 2-0 win over Real Valladolid in La Liga, and a 5-0 win over Viktoria Plzen in the UEFA Champions League. But, the smart thing the interim manager has done is to take full credit for winning the easiest three matches in a row his team will play all year. Solari simply hopes Perez isn’t paying too close attention, and that is a good gamble. If it pays off, the interim will become permanent, or as much as a Real Madrid coach can be permanent. Yet, the jury is out on whether that is a good or bad thing.
Real Madrid prospects
The expectation of a Madrid resurgence is further muted, though, as the Merengues are about to play Celta Vigo and then Eibar at their respective homes in La Liga. Tough away matches any year, these matches have a simple significance for Celta and Eibar—a win ties them on points with Madrid.
Solari has not so much deciphered a winning formula as he has allowed the locker room’s pent-up steam to seep out. His roster choices seem the same mix used by previous, uncertain, interim-minded, short-lived managers—keep Perez’s favorites on the pitch but experiment wildly otherwise. This does not seem a long-term strategy and if the coach repeats his approach the coming matches will make clear whether the decision was genius or folly.
Following those testy matches, Real plays away to Roma in the Champions League and then hosts Valencia, who are due for a resurgent performance. If Real has won the coach will be given some breathing room but if he loses or splits he may be elsewhere before Thanksgiving.
So our tension here boils down to: Will Solari emerge from this rabbit hole intact and will Madrid climb up from its sixth spot on the La Liga table? Not exactly the type of queries to get the blood boiling but certainly the type that this season has offered up by way of storylines. Ok, they can be interesting too, right?
La Liga stumbles on
Meanwhile, if we look at the coach as a reflection of the league at Round 11, what we see is a stale competition wherein teams seem to be on a merry-go-round where one team plays well this week, and another plays well the next, but few play well consistently. Sounds like Madrid’s season in a nutshell. Also sounds like a situation tailored to muted expectations.
The next set of La Liga questions surrounds Atletico Madrid, who has mostly not been up to par at home and are in fourth place. Will Diego Simeone’s side pick up steam on the heels of their recent 2-0 home win over Dortmund in the Champions League? Or, will they take heart from the fact that one of the two Spanish Football giants is ailing and assert their claim to a place further up the table? Well, after a home match against faltering Athletic Bilbao, the Colchoneros host Barcelona and Monaco before traveling to standout Girona for their first December challenge. If Simeone’s charges are to make a, well, charge, this would be the time to stake a claim at home and abroad.
But that muted sense remains as we are talking about at least a month’s time before Atleti’s and Real’s dust settles. Which brings us to Barcelona. Lionel Messi has been out of action and thus depriving La Liga of his scintillating performances. Luis Suarez, Phillipe Coutinho, officiating largesse, and some good luck, have combined to cover for the diminutive Argentine. But, will he be healthy two weeks hence to face Atleti?
The Cules’ good fortune seems unending though as they are now going into a five- match spell that includes La Liga matches against 14th placed Real Betis and 16th placed Villarreal, a Champions League run-in with non-powerhouse PSV Eindhoven, and a Copa del Rey clash with second-division Cultural Leonesa. Sadly, even this expected rash of wins, given the opposition, seems humdrum, which brings us full circle to Solari.
Espanyol and Sevilla to the rescue
Solari and La Liga seem mirror images in that no one expects much from either’s performances in the short term. This seems boring, but it also sets the table for a potentially explosive moment to come, that time when things do fall into place, if not for all then for enough to make this a sprint to the finish line in May. One upcoming match actually seems poised to garner that change-maker mantle.
The domestic competition does have its early standouts, remember, as following Barcelona atop the table, just three points adrift, is Espanyol and one point further down is Sevilla. These teams have been playing well, with some consistency, and are mostly responsible for keeping the 2018-19 La Liga competition palatable.
With the match-up between hosts Sevilla and Espanyol on November 11th we have a reason for hope as the best-playing teams of the La Liga season vie for bragging rights just as we approach the one-third point of the competition. Will the match augur some wake-up calls around Spain? Will we be treated instead to another lull as one of the teams is bound to have an off day? Let’s hope we witness a good match with the teams at their best—and maybe they will light a fire under the rest of the La Liga clubs.