The managerial career of Julen Lopetegui has endured plenty of ups and downs in recent seasons. There were the desperate months of 2018 when he was not only sacked as manager of Spain, but shortly afterward was shown the door by Real Madrid too.
Yet life has appeared to go full circle for the 54-year-old former goalkeeper, who made more than 100 appearances for La Liga side Rayo Vallecano during a five-year spell between 1997 and 2002.
Less than two months ago he enjoyed his finest moment as either a player or manager, when his skillful Sevilla team beat Inter Milan 3-2 in the final of the Europa League.
He now prepares to lead the team into the group stages of the Champions League, where his side will face Chelsea, Krasnodar and Rennes in group E. Although the Spanish side are expected to finish above the representatives from Russia and France and qualify for the knock-out phase, the latest football odds are forecasting them to finish behind Chelsea who they face in the opening round of matches.
This is all a far cry from the summer of 2018 when Lopetegui became a political pawn in the ongoing saga between Spain’s national federation and La Liga giants Real Madrid.
With Spain already in Russia preparing for the 2018 World Cup, Real Madrid announced that Lopetegui would be taking over as their coach the following season. Real’s decision to make this announcement, just before the start of the World Cup, was fully intended to anger the national federation – and it certainly did. Within 24 hours, and through no fault of his own, Lopetegui was dismissed as boss of Spain, even though the national team’s opening Group B match against Portugal in Sochi was just two days away.
Lopetegui was clearly a victim of the distrust between the powerful Spanish Federation and Real Madrid. His results during qualifying were exemplary, nine wins out of 10 – plus one draw against Italy in Turin – but he still had to go as the federation decided it was the only way to save face.
An equally ruthless Real flexed their muscles after the team from the Bernabeu Stadium made a poor start to the 2018-19 season. Following a run of just six wins and six losses from 14 games, Lopetegui was axed on October 28. His final match in charge was a 5-1 defeat by Barcelona in El Clásico.
After a break of over seven months, Lopetegui returned to the game when he was appointed manager of Sevilla in June 2019. He signed a three-year deal and, in his first season in charge, Sevilla qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in La Liga. They suffered just six league defeats all season, their lowest number of losses since 1946 – when they topped the table. They also secured their sixth victory in the Europa League – an all-time record for the competition.
It’s all starting to look rosy again for Lopetegui. The challenge now is to see whether his side can break the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona by muscling into the top two.