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Carlo Ancelotti. SUR
The clash of the football titans
A Look at LaLiga

The clash of the football titans

Real Madrid ran themselves into the grass for their semi-final Champions place and face Barça in the Clásico with an empty fuel tank

Friday, 19 April 2024, 18:57

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It’s either ‘hay Liga’ or “Liga terminada” when Real Madrid and FC Barcelona meet in the 256th “El Clásico”.

If Real Madrid win, they’ll have an 11-point advantage with six rounds remaining - meaning they are as good as champions. If Barça can emerge victorious, the gap is down to five - and Real may not feel quite so invincible.

The two clubs need to dust themselves down after exhausting Champions League quarter-final experiences. Ideally, they’d both like a week to refuel and collect their thoughts for a season-shaping evening.

I was at the Etihad Stadium to witness the most exhausting performance I’ve ever seen from a Real Madrid team. Marathon runners fall over a finishing line with more energy than the Real team at full-time. It was a total performance as players ran themselves into the grass. Dani Carvajal looked battered, bruised, and completely worn-out. Artisans were asked to work as labourers: Jude Bellingham, the youngest player in the Real team, looked spent as he chased, closed down, sprinted and drove forward. Vinícius Júnior had little opportunity to express himself yet knuckled down and did as much running as anyone.

The reward is a Champions League semi-final place. The downside is an empty fuel-tank as they face their age-old rivals. Real have a side bursting with experience - but experience invariably means that players are a little older and convalescence takes longer.

Barcelona did need to play an hour with a player less against Paris Saint-Germain after Ronald Araújo was sent off - but they have the advantage of youth so they should find it easier to recover. Personally, I thought it was a cruel dismissal which ended their European adventure. Araújo is the rock on which the team is built, and his loss was more damaging than any other player.

It was, of course, Barcelona’s first defeat since Xavi announced he’d be stepping down as manager at the end of the season. He’s never dismissed reclaiming the title. A few weeks ago, this looked like misplaced positivity and would have been regarded as trash talk; now, there’s a semblance of possibility.

It would be remarkable if he could take it to the wire in his last race against the rivals he’s faced more than any other as player and coach. His third dismissal of the season, this time for kicking over a UEFA podium, suggests that he does need a rest from it all. His adrenaline will be overflowing as he tries to inspire his young team to success. He needs to ensure that he transfers that to his players.

Carlo Ancelotti will have a plan for Real Madrid. He had a masterplan in Manchester and his team followed a perfectly-executed plan in Mallorca last weekend when he alternated half of his outfield - and then reintroduced players to the field accordingly.

Ancelotti’s players are on a high but there will be a residue from the superhuman efforts against Manchester City. Xavi’s team are unbeaten in La Liga since he announced he’ll be leaving. It’s 10 wins in 14 games - so it’s a tough one to call (as always).

May the best team win.

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