Lopetegui still in Real peril after canceling Czechs But boss insists CL victory over Plzen could be ‘turning point’
MADRID — It might not be enough to save Julen Lopetegui’s job, but Real Madrid’s 2-1 Champions League win over Viktoria Plzen stopped the rot and restored some belief.
Barcelona is next at Camp Nou, and even without the injured Lionel Messi, Madrid is unlikely to find its great rival as generous as Czech side Plzen was on Tuesday night.
But after five games without a win, and three losses in a row, victory was all-important, and Madrid secured it with goals in each half from Karim Benzema and Marcelo.
It could have been more straightforward and when Patrik Hrosovsky pulled one back for Plzen with 12 minutes left, a tense finale ensued.
When it was over, there were disgruntled whistles from the home fans.
“I would have liked to achieve a more comfortable victory, but the important thing is the three points,” Lopetegui said. “It can be a turning point.”
Madrid held on to reassert itself in Group G, where the reigning champion is now tied with Roma at six points.
Whether Lopetegui is still in charge for the return match in the Czech Republic next month remains to be seen, although he was confident he would still be at the helm against Barca.
“I am absolutely convinced of that, yes,” he said.
“We are going to turn this around. What I’ve learned about this club is to fight, that is the DNA of this club. That’s what we’re going to do, fight.”
Real president Florentino Perez might well have already made up his mind to make a change, with reports suggesting former Chelsea and Italy boss Antonio Conte is under consideration.
That appointment could scupper Madrid’s chances of signing Eden Hazard because of the Belgian playmaker’s strained relationship with Conte at Chelsea.
There is also the question of timing.
Barcelona would be a cruel opening assignment for a new coach while losing a Clasico could also kill any potential bounce effect.
In what could have been a message to the board, Lopetegui left all four of the club’s summer signings on the bench, including Alvaro Odriozola, who was replaced at rightback by Lucas Vazquez.
There was gentle applause when the coach’s name was announced before kickoff, and Madrid’s players started like they were trying to save him, too.
Sergio Ramos headed over and then against the post, but if Real was eager on attack, it was just as nervy on defense.
Keylor Navas jabbed a difficult pass straight out of play and then had to make a save as Milan Petrzela raced in behind Vazquez.
After weeks of shoddy finishing, Madrid then made it look easy. Vazquez crossed to the back post, where the lively Benzema nodded in from a yard.
Benzema and Isco should have finished off Plzen, but Benzema opted to shoot when a pass would have produced a tap-in — much to the frustration of Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos.
Plzen could have punished the host as David Limbersky’s chip floated wide before Petrzela feathered over from two yards. It was a dreadful miss and spared the blushes of Marcelo, who had sold himself on the opposite flank.
Marcelo’s defensive frailties have always come with an attacking benefit, and his lifted finish in the 55th minute gave Madrid the breathing space it craved. Bale’s deft touch had sent the Brazilian clear in the box.