Madrid glitter may turn out to be fools’ gold for Pochettino
Spanish giants are on a downward trajectory and no longer have the money that once made them so feared
It was another bad weekend for Real Madrid, beaten on Sunday 2-0 at home by Real Sociedad, now 10 points behind leaders Barcelona, and still outside the places for the Champions League, a competition that they have come to think of as their own over the past three years.
This Madrid season, under two managers and counting, has been more chastening than even the decline of Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, given that the European champions had that much further to fall, although the signs have been there for years.
A club borrowing to pay their biannual wage bill, the second biggest in Europe; a stalled stadium redevelopment that requires a €575m loan but will not add a single extra standard seat to the capacity and a team in need of fresh blood.
All factors for Mauricio Pochettino to consider when he reflects on his future over the next few months, as the most sought-after manager in the European game who could have the Madrid job should he want it.
He would be the first choice there or at Manchester United if he chose to leave Tottenham this summer, but you wonder if he knows exactly the scale of the job in Madrid after Zinedine Zidane got out at the top of the market last June.
The club are still in the Champions League and may yet win it for the fourth time in a row, but otherwise there seems to be no contingency in their latest set of financial results for a failure to qualify next season.
Most English clubs take the precaution of including a worst-case scenario in the event of missing out on Champions League qualification, but for Madrid the prospect remains unthinkable.
As usual, the perception of the club in the transfer market as the ultimate destination for all players and many coaches remains strong.
They are the ghost at the feast when it comes to the uncertain futures of Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen, now into the last 18 months of their contracts at Chelsea and Spurs respectively.
This is clearly the way Madrid intend to go, using the old lustre to tempt those big names who are delaying over their final big contract, and in the meantime they have picked up a young cut-price contract refusenik in Brahim Diaz from Manchester City.
The question remains, however, as to where the money will come from for the fees and contracts that Hazard and Eriksen would expect to command. The last results showed that without the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for €100m to Juventus the club would have projected losses of €87 million, which even for the autocracy of president Florentino Perez would have been hard to bear.
There is an enduring belief in football - unswerving in its childlike conviction - that when it comes to Madrid the money will come from somewhere. But where?
In September Perez had to ask for permission from the club's general assembly to borrow €575m for the stadium redevelopment that was supposed to begin in 2011 and has lost its main naming-rights backer, Abu Dhabi energy company IPIC. Since then there has been no word on whether he has been successful in securing the loan.
This is the reality of the club Pochettino would walk into were he to decide to leave Spurs in the summer.
His current club are at least reaching the end of a delayed stadium demolition, relocation and new build.
Madrid have not even reached the start of the Bernabeu project, which is more about the adjoining shopping complex and a roof, while in the meantime they have a team in need of rebuilding.
All this against the backdrop of falling attendances at a club whose fan base expect to see the best players in the world signed at record fees but have had much less of that in recent years.
The governance of the club has been rewritten so that only Perez can be re-elected president, now in control of the arcane voting system and with access to the necessary €75m bank guarantees that the position now requires.
A club nominally owned by the fans yet dictated to by one man, and a club who cannot afford to live as they once did.
What could change? There is expected to be a government announcement shortly on new legislation that may alter the way Spanish clubs make the transition from supporter-owned entities, such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, to public limited companies.
Would Perez dare to suggest selling part of the club - as Bayern Munich did to finance the Allianz Arena - in order to get his new Bernabeu built, as well as making Madrid competitive in the transfer market again?
That would change 117 years of history at the Bernabeu, although ultimately the club - or any part of it - is not Perez's to sell. He would require the permission of the membership, and would need something to persuade them to back a president now in the 10th year of his second spell in charge.
Perhaps that might be one of Europe's most sought-after coaching talents.
Of course, it all costs money - a new stadium, a new team, a new manager - and like many others Pochettino could also be in thrall to the belief that Madrid always find the funds.
But the financial results have long suggested a different picture, and finally that reality is being played out on the pitch and in the stands. (© Daily Telegraph, London)