If Zinedine Zidane’s run of three consecutive Champions League titles is the hardest act to follow in the history of Spanish football, then the second toughest inheriting of the reins was when Julen Lopetegui took over from Vicente del Bosque as national team coach.
Spain’s only ever World Cup victory came under Del Bosque, who also led La Roja to glory at Euro 2012 for a third continental championship.
While the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 ended with early exits, Del Bosque’s legacy remained intact and it was always going to take someone special to follow him and to keep the show on the road, yet that’s exactly what Lopetegui did when he was appointed La Roja coach in July of 2016.
Boasting a strong personality – without being a look-at-me kind of manager – and with a detailed background as a coach in the Spanish youth categories, he was able to rejuvenate a talented squad and whet their appetite for silverware once again.
The Basque expertly oversaw a transition of a squad that had already won it all, replacing veteran players with up-and-coming stars, many of whom he knew from his time as Spain’s Under-21s coach.
With tweaks, rather than revolution, he made Spain a winning machine once again and they breezed through World Cup qualifying, putting Italy to the sword in Madrid, while they also put in some impressive performance in friendlies, most notably humiliating Argentina 6-1.
In the 20 matches he was in charge of the national team before his sacking, Lopetegui’s record was 14 wins and six draws, with 61 goals scored and just 13 conceded.
While he was not given the chance to show how he’d fare in tournament football, he had already done enough to be considered a success and to be considered an excellent replacement for a legend like Del Bosque.
Now he’ll look to follow Zidane at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, a challenge with many parallels to the one he has just passed with flying colours.
Lopetegui was humble enough to admit that the formula developed by Del Bosque and by Luis Aragones was a winning one and one which shouldn’t be radically overhauled, so he’ll surely be able to offer similar continuity for Los Blancos.
The Real Madrid players appreciated Zidane’s trust, his rotation policy and the way he backed them in the press and Lopetegui will be able to grab the baton and do the same.
Even if they did enjoy success in the Champions League, the fact that Real Madrid finished 17 points behind Barcelona in LaLiga last season showed that there are some issues needing ironed out in the Spanish capital, so some minor alterations will be needed.
This was also true with Spain two years ago and Lopetegui’s astute promotion of youngsters to the team helped La Roja rediscover their mojo, so he certainly has what it takes to get the best out of talents like Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, Theo Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi, all of whom are 23 or younger.
At international level, he showed he can extract the best from the likes of Isco and Marco Asensio, while he’ll be inheriting a squad which contains more Spaniards than it does foreign players.
If anyone can replace Zidane, then it’s the coach who many Real Madrid players already trust.
It’s the coach who already has experience of frictionlessly replacing a legend.
It’s Julen Lopetegui.