Madrid (AFP) – Quique Setien admitted it was strange to take charge of a club sitting top of the table but Barcelona’s new coach heads into the Clasico on Sunday with a chance to take charge of the title race.
Barca can go five points clear of Real in La Liga with a victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, where they have won on their last three visits and not lost in the league since 2014.
Setien’s appointment on January 13 was greeted with a mixture of intrigue about the return of a purist coach at Camp Nou and scepticism that a 61-year-old, whose last jobs had been at Real Betis, Las Palmas and Lugo, had been given the keys to one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Yet six weeks into his tenure, Setien has brought some stability, at least on the pitch, given continuing political blunders off it mean another crisis never feels far away.
“Those things are significant but they don’t affect me,” Setien said after the spat between Lionel Messi and sporting director Eric Abidal earlier this month.
“And my job is to make sure they affect the players as little as possible.”
Setien met with Pep Guardiola after watching Manchester City defeat Real in the Champions League on Wednesday and it seems inconceivable the subject of how best to beat Zinedine Zidane’s side did not come up.
But while the pair share common ground over their views on how the game should be played, the first stage of Setien’s tenure has been as much about fighting fires as tweaking tactics.
In that way, he might have taken tips from Zidane, the Frenchman whose suitablity to Real at least in part stems from his ability to exude calm, even in the most trying moments.
Zidane has handled pointed questions this season about his own future, an injured 100 million-euro ($109 million) signing Eden Hazard, numerous controversies around Gareth Bale and a Clasico postponed due to riots.
– ‘Come from the bottom’ –
At Betis, Setien was not known for his subtlety in press conferences but if he was not already aware how significant that part of his new job would be, he will be now.
“I’ve come from the bottom, I’ve got used to working with what I have,” said Setien last month, when asked about the board’s failure to sign a striker.
“We spoke about the issue for one minute,” he then said in reference to Messi’s dispute with Abidal. “I’m interested in the football. Anything else is something I can’t control.”
Given the unpopularity of Barca’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu, it appears increasingly likely the club’s elections could be called early this summer and it will not have been lost on Setien that change could have implications for him too.
Rival candidate Victor Font is heavily linked to former midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who rejected an approach from the current board before Setien got the call.
But if Setien was as surprised as anyone, he also pledged to make the most of the opportunity and it has been noticeable how willing his players have been to adjust.
“Little by little we adapt to what he wants,” Messi said in an interview with Mundo Deportivo this month.
“It is not easy because we spent a lot of time with Valverde playing differently and today they ask us to do something else. But the truth is we are learning and we have a lot to learn.”
Messi also called for “tranquility” and in recent weeks Barcelona have gradually, if not entirely convincingly, strung together some results.
They now have five wins from their last seven games, with the latest match a valuable 1-1 draw away to Napoli in the Champions League to leave them well-placed, unlike Real, to reach the quarter-finals.
And in the league, victory against a shaken opponent this weekend would effectively move them six points clear given a superior head-to-head record, with a favourable run-in to come.
It means while question marks persist over Setien’s past and future, in the present, and on the pitch, Barcelona head into the Clasico the steadier of the two. For Setien, that is no mean feat.
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