'CSKA must be happy to play us then!' - Real Madrid manager Lopetegui responds to 'weak team' jibe
After a summer transfer window that saw star player Cristiano Ronaldo leave the Spanish capital and few singings of note arrive to replace the Portuguese winger, Real have not unfairly been portrayed in certain sections of the Russian press as significantly weaker than the team that won three consecutive Champions League titles.
Los Blancos have won just one point from their last two La Liga games, failing to score in either, and on Tuesday, the current holders and 13-time winners enter their Champions League Group G game versus CSKA at Luzhniki Stadium without key players Isco, hero of last year's final Gareth Bale, and captain Sergio Ramos.
In his pre-match press conference at VEB Arena, CSKA's usual home, boss Viktor Goncharenko mulled the idea that now is perhaps the the opportune time to meet Madrid.
However, Lopetegui was ready for when the question was put to him in his own presser at Luzhniki: “In that case, CSKA, the Russian press and all the people in the stadium must be happy to play us!” came the coach’s wry reply.
In Ramos, Real will be without their leader, who was taken off during their weekend Madrid derby versus Atletico as a precaution. Lopetegui insisted the choice for his skipper to not fly to Russia was his initiative.
“We always have dialogues with any player. Ramos has played more minutes in the Champions League than anyone else," Lopetegui explained. We need him to play to the end of the season, we need him to be strong. The decision for him to remain at home was my decision.”
Ramos will be denied the chance to return to Luzhniki, the stage for Spain's 4-3 penalty shootout loss versus hosts Russia in the last 16 of this summer's World Cup, for which he was also captain.
Lopetegui, theoretically, could and probably should have managed Spain in that match; the 52-year-old was dismissed by the Spanish Football Federation on the eve of the tournament after it was announced he was to take over the outgoing Zinedine Zidane at Real.
Lopetegui was replaced at the 11th hour by former Real and Spain captain Fernando Hierro, but many believe the disarray of the situation caused Spain's surprisingly poor showing at Russia 2018. The current Real manager, however, confirmed he has no regrets over how matters panned out.
“I haven’t thought about [that possibility]. I look at Luzhniki Stadium one of the best and most beautiful in the world, and the biggest in Russia," he said. We are completely focussed on the game, on what we need to do to achieve apart from that, I don’t consider any other possibilities.”
Despite their poor league form, Real have begun their Champions League campaign brightly, recording a 3-0 home win over Roma in their first match, something Lopetegui vowed to repeat versus CSKA.
“Our aim is to continue in the same vein. Every game is difficult in the Champions League. All games are difficult and very important. We know we’re facing a strong opponent, with some good players. Our aim is to win, and to get the 3 points,” he said.
CSKA enter the game having recorded a 2-2 away draw against Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in their first game and sit 4th in the Russian Premier League after nine games. The biggest attacking threat CSKA have in their ranks comes in the form of the league's top scorer Fedor Chalov, who has 7 goals to his name so far this season.
Perhaps CSKA's best player last term, Aleksandr Golovin, departed for Ligue 1 side Monaco in the summer, and will not line up in the center of midfield to combat the threat of Luka Modric, the newly-crowned world's best player, also making his return to the place his Croatia side lost last summer's World Cup final. Nevertheless, Lopetegui is expecting a competitive match.
“CSKA have a good team right now, they didn’t look in the first round of games against Viktoria Plzen. They have important players back from injury," he said.
"A big plus for CSKA in this case is that they are able to play with 4 or with 5 at the back and change their formation during the game. It creates an added difficulty for us but it is one we can overcome.”
“We have a great mentality. This is only the second match, the hardest is yet to come. We are playing away, and the fact CSKA have the advantage of playing on their own pitch motivates us more than anything," Lopetegui added.
The last meeting between the two was also held at Luzhniki Stadium, ending in a 1-1 draw, Real's goal that day coming courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo. Whether Real minus Ronaldo this time around will get the better of CSKA, will be decided on Tuesday night.