▶ The tiny city on the north coast of Africa will play host to a man­ager­less side in cri­sis, writes

The National - News - - SPORT FOOTBALL - Andy Mit­ten

The last time Real Madrid played in Africa, they were crowned world cham­pi­ons af­ter de­feat­ing Ar­gentina’s San Lorenzo in 2014. They went into that game hav­ing won their last 21 matches. They were also world cham­pi­ons in 2016 and 2017 and are favourites to win the Fifa Club World Cup again in De­cem­ber in Abu Dhabi. But, ahead of to­mor­row’s Copa del Rey game on the north African coast against Melilla, Madrid are reel­ing.

Foot­ball’s most suc­cess­ful club have lost four of their last five games in­clud­ing three con­sec­u­tive games in La Liga for the first time since May 2009.

Julen Lopetegui, 52, in­stalled for this sea­son to re­place Zine­dine Zi­dane, was dis­missed af­ter Sun­day’s 5-1 “manita” by a rampant Barcelona. He lasted 132 days.

There is con­sid­er­able sym­pa­thy for Lopetegui, man­ager of the Span­ish na­tional side go­ing into the World Cup fi­nals, for, as the front page of Mon­day’s Marca ar­gued “This isn’t just Julen’s fault”.

Lopetegui’s fa­ther was not wrong when he said his son’s side had 50 goals taken out of them with the sale of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo to Ju­ven­tus over the sum­mer.

Madrid’s of­fi­cial view is that “the board con­sid­ers there to be a large dis­par­ity be­tween the qual­ity within the Real Madrid squad, which boasts eight nom­i­nees for this year’s Bal­lon d’Or award – an un­prece­dented num­ber in the club’s his­tory – and the team’s re­sults to date.”

For­mer Real Madrid player San­ti­ago So­lari will take tem­po­rary charge. The Ar­gen­tine is cere­bral, pop­u­lar and re­spected.

“My ob­jec­tive is to win to­mor­row,” he said con­fi­dently of the game in Melilla. “I’ll do what I can. I’ve been at this club do­ing other things, play­ing, sweat­ing. Madrid is big­ger than all of us. I just want to be part of it.”

De­spite spec­u­la­tion link­ing Madrid to other man­agers in­clud­ing An­to­nio Conte,

The Na­tional un­der­stands that Madrid have been keen on the Span­ish man­ager of the Bel­gium na­tional team, Roberto Martinez.

Madrid will travel to Melilla, based in the Span­ish en­clave of the same name, who sit sec­ond in Spain’s re­gional third di­vi­sion, with only one de­feat from 13 games.

It’s in­con­ceiv­able that Madrid won’t progress to the last 16 of the Copa del Rey, since they have the sec­ond leg at home in a for­mat which favours Spain’s big­gest sides.

Melilla is an en­clave of 4.7 square miles and sits on the north coast of Morocco with a pop­u­la­tion of 78,000. Along with its fel­low Span­ish en­clave Ceuta, it is sur­rounded by high ra­zor-wire fences to keep out the thou­sands of mi­grants who try to gain ac­cess – and thus a foothold in Europe.

Ceuta’s foot­ball team were dis­solved in 2012, but der­bies be­tween Ceuta and Melilla used to see both teams travel via the Span­ish main­land to avoid trav­el­ling through Morocco, which claims both en­claves as their own.

Each day, more than 30,000 Moroc­cans cross the bor­der to work or shop in Melilla and Ceuta. Nayim, who scored a last-minute goal in the 1995 Euro­pean Cup Win­ners’ Cup fi­nal for Real Zaragoza against Arse­nal, is from Ceuta.

CD Melilla play at the 7,000 ca­pac­ity Al­varez Claro Sta­dium – 7,000 thanks to tem­po­rary stands which have been brought in for the Madrid game.

It’s close to the last statue of Gen­eral Franco re­main­ing in Spain. Franco used Melilla as a

stag­ing ground for his Na­tion­al­ist re­bel­lion in 1936.

Melilla usu­ally en­ter­tain crowds of 2,000 and wins against fel­low min­nows Ye­clano (on penal­ties), CD Tude­lano and Ontinyent have given them the re­ward of the big­gest game in their his­tory.

Fans with sea­son tick­ets pay as lit­tle as €5 (Dh21) for their sea­son tick­ets – just 27 cents per league game – and 5,000 fans hold them.

They will get re­duced-priced tick­ets for the Madrid game, while those who don’t buy sea­son tick­ets will pay be­tween €30-70.

Else­where, hold­ers Barcelona face third di­vi­sion Cul­tural Leonesa and Atletico Madrid meet Cata­lan third-tier side Sant An­dreu who come from Barcelona. They are all David against Go­liath matches, but re­cent hap­pen­ings at Real Madrid mean that what should have been a walkover has the faint pos­si­bil­ity that, like David, un­der­dog Melilla might bring the gi­ant down.


Real Madrid play­ers at train­ing yes­ter­day 24 hours af­ter Julen Lopetegui, be­low, was sacked as man­ager of the Span­ish club

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