PETE JENSON: Menacing Real Madrid can nudge Xavi closer to the sack if they dominate tonight's Copa del Rey El Clasico… Carlo Ancelotti's side are furious at recent awards snubs and desperate to take their anger out on injury-hit Barcelona
- Real Madrid winger Vinicius did not make the FIFPro World XI for 2022
- Karim Benzema was beaten to the individual award by Lionel Messi
- Barcelona have lost their last two games and need to return to winning ways
The absence of Vinicius in the FIFPro World XI for 2022 has only added to the sense that the man who got the goal in last summer’s Champions League final is still not being recognised as he should be. And he’ll be determined to take out his frustration about that, on Barcelona tonight.
According to his coach Carlo Ancelotti, the Brazilian is the most decisive player in the world right now. But he didn't feature in the six best forwards with Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski all still ahead of him.
Benzema was upset too having missed out on the top individual prize to Messi. He posted on Instagram his trophies won in 2022 drawing attention to 63 goals scored and 21 assists.
Madrid as a club felt offended and decided not to send an official party to the gala. Their gala comes tonight in the Santiago Bernabeu when they hope to feast on the wounded animal that is Barcelona.
Xavi's team were defeated twice in four days by Manchester United and Almeria and are missing their three most important forwards Robert Lewandowski, Pedri and Ousmane Dembele.
Vinicius will be determined to prove how good he is against Barcelona tonight
Karim Benzema will want to show that he deserves to be seen as the best player in the world
Madrid’s plan is to finish this two-legged Spanish Cup semi-final tonight; Barcelona want to come out of the first 90 minutes still alive in the tie because they know that in a month’s time Pedri, Ousmane Dembele and Robert Lewandowski ought to be back for the second leg and they will have the chance to turn things around in their own stadium.
Barcelona have kept 17 clean sheets in the league this season, conceding only eight goals in 23 games – another perfect defensive performance tonight would be invaluable and a large part of that plan rests on the shoulders of Ronald Araujo. The Uruguayan centre-back will switch to right back to man-mark Vinicius and the game could be won or lost in that duel.
In the three games to date that Araujo has moved to neutralise Vinicius the aggregate score is 1-8 in Barcelona’s favour. That balance includes the 0-1 friendly in the summer in Las Vegas, plus last season’s 0-4 in the Bernabeu and the final of the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.
Real Madrid did win the first league clasico of the season last year but Araujo was out injured and Sergio Roberto suffered in his place.
Ter Stegen’s opposite number Thibaut Courtois has not enjoyed recent Clasicos. He has let in 18 goals in 10 games against Barcelona and seven in his last two matches. But Ferran Torres and Raphinha will lead Barcelona’s forward line tonight and the drop in threat level is obvious.
Predictably Carlo Ancelotti played down the importance of the game beyond it being for a place in the Cup final. ‘The league and cup are different competitions,’ said Ancelotti yesterday.
He also provoked laughter in the media room when he said he didn’t know what the ‘cagometro’ was. The best translation into English would be the 'squeaky-bum-time scale' and the theory is that the needle will be off the dial if Madrid win well tonight.
There have been comment pieces in the last few days regarding the credit Xavi has in the bank after winning his first trophy in January. The verdict is that it would evaporate if Madrid knocked Barcelona out of the cup and closed the gap in the league, currently at seven points.
Panic could set in if Xavi's Barcelona lose their third straight match against their fiercest rivals
No one has ever lost a seven point lead at the top at this stage of the season but Real Madrid could close the gap to four in the second clasico of the season and with a stronger fitter squad that has managed to steer clear of injuries they might emerge as favourites ahead of the run-in.
The psychological blow dealt by a big first-leg win for Madrid therefore cannot be underestimated. No wonder Xavi was trying to set the bar of expectation low yesterday telling reporters: ‘We are two games from the final but they are the favourites. If I think about where we have come from then I’m euphoric’.
It was a call for perspective, of which there will be none on Friday morning in Barcelona if the team loses heavily.
Three defeats in a row is bad enough but the third coming against Real Madrid boosting their belief that they can catch Barcelona in the league and leave them with none of the serious trophies at the end of the season would ring all sorts of alarm bells at the Camp Nou.
Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Rudiger, Nacho; Modric, Camavinga, Kroos; Valverde, Benzema, Vinicius
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Araujo, Kounde, Christensen, Balde; De Jong, Busquets, Kessie; Raphinha, Ferran Torres, Gavi
* Eden Hazard will be on the bench tonight – the former Chelsea man has the incredible record of NEVER playing a Clasico in four years as a Madrid player. He was injured for the first four and has struggled for form and fitness only making the bench since.
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