The Santiago Solari effect has worn off at Real Madrid. The Spanish club hoped it had found a coach to turn its season around when it promoted Solari from its reserve team to take over from the fired Julen Lopetegui in late October.
But two weeks after Solari guided Madrid to the Club World Cup title, the club is back in trouble after consecutive stumbles left it far behind in the Spanish league title race.
Madrid, a 33-time champion, is about to reach the midway point of the league season in fifth place. It is 10 points behind leader Barcelona but also trailing Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Alaves. Madrid slumped to a humbling 2-0 loss at home to Real Sociedad on Sunday, three days after a 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Villarreal.
Sociedad appeared to be the ideal opponent for a Madrid team needing a convincing win: it had lost four straight and was playing its first match under a new coach.
Instead, an unnecessary foul by Madrid’s Casemiro gave Sociedad an early penalty, and two more rash tackles got Lucas Vazquez sent off before the visitors scored late to crush all hopes of a comeback. “Today everything went wrong,” Solari said.
Luka Modric, Madrid’s Ballon d’Or winner, tried to shield Solari from all the blame.
“Our coach is doing a great job, but he can’t score goals nor stop [the penalty] at the start of the match,” Modric said. “He is motivated, but we players who are on the pitch have to do things better and be more focused.
“There are several players who are not playing at their best. I have to improve and take responsibility.”
At this point last season after 18 rounds, Madrid was 16 points behind Barcelona. But club legend Zinedine Zidane was in charge at the time and still had plenty of credit after winning back-to-back Champions League crowns. The club stuck with him, and even though it never challenged Barcelona in la Liga, Zidane steered it a third straight European title.
The inexperienced Solari, however, has no track record to fall back on.
And with speculation rampant that Madrid could be interested in reuniting with former— and now unemployed— coach Jose Mourinho, Solari’s tenure in the job apparently is increasingly fragile.
While lamenting the loss, Madrid’s fans found some solace in the scintillating performance by Brazilian teenager Vinicius Jr. The 18-year-old Vinicius was Solari’s pick to take the place of the injured Gareth Bale, giving him his first start in the league.
Showing verve and confidence, Vinicius proved to be by far the biggest threat to Sociedad with his bursts of speed from the left flank.
His chip shot was tipped wide by goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli early, and after the restart he got more attention when he cut back past two defenders along the edge of the box before floating a lob that just missed the far post. He also clamored for a penalty that was not awarded when he dribbled at Rulli and was stripped by the goalkeeper of the ball.
Madrid paid 46 million euros for Vinicius last year, just days after he made his professional debut for Flamengo. He played for Madrid’s reserve team under the orders of Solari at the start of this season, and Solari has featured him since taking over the senior team.
Vinicius “has been a source of joy for the club ever since he arrived,” Solari said. “I think his progress has been much faster than we expected.” AP