Carlo Ancelotti deflected the credit for Vinicius Jr's upturn in form as Real Madrid prepare to face Valencia on Sunday.

Madrid boast the longest unbeaten streak in LaLiga, having gone 22 games without defeat but they have won only one of their last nine visits to Valencian sides in the top flight.

Vinicius has been an integral part of their positive start to this term, winning three and drawing one, as he has scored four times in as many appearances.

And while Ancelotti has been pleased with the Brazil forward's form, he has not been surprised by his impressive performances so far.

"At the game level I see a player with impressive one-on-one ability," Ancelotti told Saturday's news conference.

"Today's Vinicius is the same that I saw when he was not here, what happens is that this season he started scoring and that has given him confidence.

"I am not a magician, just a coach who has to give players the confidence they need to express their qualities." 

 Asked whether Vinicius can continue his form, the Madrid head coach responded: "It depends on the personality, the character, the charisma, the quality that one has. 

"Vinicius has taken the team on our backs on several occasions and at this moment is what he has to do, when he is more veteran he will be able to put his character and experience."

And Ancelotti believes the future of Madrid is in safe hands with another Brazil youngster Rodyrgo coming through the ranks.

The 20-year-old has made four appearances this term, though he has not managed any goal involvements in those outings.

"Rodrygo is very fast, very complete and is very young," Ancelotti continued. "He is the present and the future of Real Madrid."

Carlo Ancelotti is hoping to make history by landing a fourth Champions League title this season but is unsure where his Real Madrid rank among the favourites to win the competition.

The experienced Italian coach is level with Liverpool great Bob Paisley and former Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane with three triumphs in the competition previously known as the European Cup.

Ancelotti famously ended Madrid's 12-year wait for 'La Decima' – a 10th European crown – when beating Atletico Madrid 4-1 in the 2013-14 final in Lisbon.

Los Blancos went on to win the competition in three successive seasons under Zidane, during which time Ancelotti was boss of Bayern Munich and Napoli, before a spell with Everton.

Back at the Santiago Bernabeu since June, Ancelotti is out to become the most successful ever coach in the continental competition, having also twice gone all the way with Milan.

"It's a great motivation," he said at a news conference previewing Wednesday's opening group game against Inter.

"But the biggest motivation of all is to come back and win with Real Madrid. The joy is to go to Valdebebas every day to coach the team.

"For me this competition is special. I also won it as a player and I have excellent memories, especially winning Madrid's 10th. It is a fresh and special memory."

Ancelotti's 76 per cent win rate across his 25 Champions League games with Madrid is the best of any coach at a single club to have managed at least 20 matches.

He will be looking to build on that return on Wednesday when Madrid travel to San Siro for their much-anticipated Group D opener with Italian champions Inter.

Los Blancos will fancy their chances of advancing from a group that also contains Shakhtar Donetsk and debutants Sheriff Tiraspol, but trickier tests would then lie in wait.

Paris Saint-Germain are the trophy favourites of many after adding Lionel Messi to their ranks, while Bayern Munich and England's four-strong contingent are also much-fancied.

"It's hard to say whether we can be considered among the favourites," Ancelotti said when asked where his side currently rank among Europe's elite clubs.

"What I can say is that Madrid will be competitive all the way. To say whether we're favourites is too difficult. We'll just try to fight for everything."

Madrid have won only one of their previous eight away games against Inter in European competition, though that victory came in last season's group stage.

Both teams have a new head coach in the dugout 10 months on from that previous encounter, with Simone Inzaghi replacing Antonio Conte at Inter ahead of this season.

Inter dropped their first points of the season on Sunday with a 2-2 draw against Sampdoria, while Madrid saw off Celta Vigo 5-2 to make it three wins from four this term.

"Inter are doing well so far," Ancelotti said. "We did well in our last game against Celta, but tomorrow will be another story. It's a competition that gives Madrid great sensations.

"We know it will be complicated. Inter have a new coach but the structure is the same. We'll try to control the game and play to our best.

"They have lost important players but have also signed some important players. They are a team that play good football. It will be an open and competitive match."

Ancelotti also confirmed that full-back Marcelo will play no part against Inter because of an injury, while Gareth Bale also remains absent.

Karim Benzema applauded the performance of Vinicius Junior in Real Madrid's 5-2 win over Celta Vigo, labelling the Brazilian a "phenomenon".

Benzema would have been most people's star of the show, the Frenchman scoring a hat-trick and getting an assist.

But Vinicius was Madrid's other key man, scoring the goal that Benzema set up and also winning the penalty that allowed the France international to score his first LaLiga treble since April 2019.

Vinicius frequently ran at the Celta defence and often caused havoc when doing so, tallying 11 dribble attempts – a figure only he (14 vs Real Betis) and Nabil Fekir (14 vs Cadiz) have bettered in a single LaLiga game this term – and completing five of them.

His goal took Vinicius to four for the season, which is already a personal best for an individual campaign at Madrid, and second only to Benzema (five) in 2021-22.

After regularly being seen as a source of frustration, even for his team-mates, the 21-year-old appears to be coming of age and Benzema is relishing his improvement.

"Vinicius is a phenomenon," Benzema told Movistar. "I really like playing with him.

 

"He is young and I talk to him a lot, giving him advice, because I know what he's going through.

"But he helps us a lot. He's a great player and he's showed that he can play for Real Madrid."

Carlo Ancelotti echoed that sentiment but was also eager to share the praise out, with the Italian clearly thrilled by the exhibition produced by his forwards.

"Vinicius is in a spectacular moment and I am happy for him. He is playing with a lot of quality and is at a very high level," Ancelotti said.

"But not only Vinicius. Benzema was also fantastic, [Luka] Modric, Miguel Gutierrez. Everyone in attack was good."

Though Ancelotti did suggest he was a little perturbed by Madrid's sloppiness at the back, with a mix-up between Nacho Fernandez and Casemiro leading to Celta's opener, before the visitors carved them open to then go 2-1 later in the first half.

"I have a good taste in my mouth," he added. "The fans helped us a lot. When we were down on the scoreboard, they pushed us and we felt their encouragement.

"It was a great game, with mistakes and with good things. It had everything.

"Defensively we gave away two goals because we lacked balance. The defensive organisation has to improve. With the ball we are fine but without it we are not as good and that can harm us."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti dismissed speculation regarding Paris Saint-Germain star and Los Blancos transfer target Kylian Mbappe.

Madrid are reportedly in negotiations with PSG in a bid to prise Mbappe from Paris amid talk of a €170million offer plus €10million in add-ons for the France international.

Mbappe has one year remaining on his contract but Madrid are determined to sign the 22-year-old – who has scored 133 goals in 174 games for PSG – at a rate of one goal every 102.46 minutes – before the end of the transfer window.

Ancelotti was asked about Mbappe after Madrid defeated Real Betis 1-0 on Saturday, however he was unwilling to shed light on the possibility of the Frenchman moving to the Santiago Bernabeu.

"We should stick to talking about the game because the rest is a matter for the club, who are working on it," Ancelotti told reporters.

"I don't know the details at this stage."

Dani Carvajal's sublime second-half volley secured a hard-earned win for Madrid at Betis.

Carvajal had not scored for Los Blancos since November 2019, but the fit-again full-back marked his return to the side with a second-half finish after being teed up by Karim Benzema.

Benzema has been involved in five goals in his opening three games of a LaLiga season (two goals and three assists) for the first time in his Madrid career.

"The first 45 minutes was much more level and much more so than the second half," Ancelotti said when asked about Benzema.

"We tried to win the ball high up the pitch as quickly as possible and that's where [Karim] Benzema struggled a bit because he had to sit a bit deeper to try and win the ball back when we weren't in possession.

"But I think Karim made the difference today again because he had a very good cross into the box for Carvajal, and we won the game."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti said the potential signing of Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe is "a matter for the club".

According to widespread reports, Madrid have offered €170million plus €10million in add-ons to bring the 22-year-old to the Bernabeu.

Mbappe has one year remaining on his contract with PSG, for whom he has scored 133 times in 174 games – at a rate of one goal every 102.46 minutes.

But Ancelotti insisted he was not the right person to speak about a potential deal when asked about it ahead of Madrid's LaLiga clash with Real Betis.

"It's a matter for the club, I understand that it is of interest, but I can't say more," he said. "If I say that Mbappe is a great player, I tell the truth. I try to get the best quality in my squad.

"My squad is fantastic, I'm focused on that. It can compete against everyone in the world. 

"I'm happy with the squad but if it improves, then better for everyone."

 

While Mbappe could arrive, Madrid's last big-money signing – Eden Hazard – has been linked with a move away.

A seemingly constant battle with injuries has prevented the Belgium forward from truly kicking on at Madrid since his move from Chelsea in 2019.

In the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Juventus, with a return to Manchester United having been agreed, Hazard has been linked with a switch to the Bianconeri. 

However, Hazard has started each of Los Blancos' opening two matches of the new LaLiga season and Ancelotti emphasised the 30-year-old's importance. 

"Hazard is a very important player, everyone knows that," Ancelotti added. "He's played the first two games coming back from injury, he's doing well.

"He's got good motivation and he's a very, very important player for us."

Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde has agreed a contract extension that will keep him at the Santiago Bernabeu until June 2027.

The 23-year-old Uruguay international's original agreement ran until 2025 but he signed a deal for a further two years, and it reportedly includes a €1billion release clause.

A statement on Madrid's website on Tuesday said: "Federico Valverde signed a contract renewal at Real Madrid. The Uruguayan midfielder remains linked to our club until June 30, 2027."

Valverde joined Madrid from Uruguayan club Penarol in July 2016, initially playing for Real Madrid Castilla, the club's reserve team.

He joined Deportivo La Coruna on loan for the 2017-18 season before establishing himself in the Madrid first-team setup under Santi Solari.

Valverde won LaLiga in 2019-20 under Zinedine Zidane, making 21 starts. Last season he featured 24 times for Madrid in the league and scored three goals.

The midfielder becomes the latest player to agree new terms at Madrid since Carlo Ancelotti took charge of Los Blancos in June.

Luka Modric, Nacho Fernandez, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal and Thibaut Courtois have all recently signed new deals.

 

 

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti was livid with his side after they "gave away two points" in Sunday's 3-3 LaLiga draw with Levante.

Madrid seemed in control leading 1-0 at the break following Gareth Bale's first LaLiga goal since 2019 but conceded two goals within 12 minutes of the restart to trail 2-1.

Vinicius Junior pulled a goal back in the 73rd minute before Rober restored Levante's lead with the Brazilian finding a leveler with five minutes to go.

"It was crazy, after controlling the first half well," Ancelotti told Marca. "We have given away two points after a very good first half.

"It is difficult to explain, we had to pay attention to any detail. We leave with a bad taste in our mouths. We have to be more attentive."

Los Blancos had started their LaLiga campaign with a strong 4-1 win away to Alaves but the Italian bemoaned his side's second-half attitude against Levante.

"The first half was very good," Ancelotti said. "In the second we did not enter with a good attitude. It was not a good response."

He added: "The third [goal] is bad luck. In the first [goal] we adjust the line badly and in the second [goal] we are three against two, and that cannot be."

Despite his frustrations, Ancelotti was delighted with the impact of 21-year-old Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior as a 59th-minute substitute and hoped he can build on his promise.

The Flamengo junior only scored three league goals from 35 appearances last term but has already equaled that output in two LaLiga games this season.

"He has a lot of quality," Ancelotti said. "He must score, but I don't know if he will be a great scorer.

"With that quality he must score many goals. It will be important for us. Sometimes it is more important to finish the games than to start them.

"It is not something that gives much importance, whether you are the owner or not."

Carlo Ancelotti says neither he nor his Real Madrid "team full of stars" are overly concerned by speculation surrounding mooted target Kylian Mbappe.

The transfer window closes at the end of August and Madrid have so far signed only David Alaba, who was a free agent after leaving Bayern Munich.

Los Blancos are enduring financial difficulties amid the coronavirus pandemic, estimating it had cost them "close to €300million", meaning they will "continue in the effort so far to contain spending".

These statements have not prevented continued links to Paris Saint-Germain forward Mbappe, however.

The World Cup winner, now a team-mate of Lionel Messi as well as Neymar, is out of contract next year and is widely considered a top target for Madrid.

But Madrid coach Ancelotti was unmoved on Saturday, speaking ahead of the trip to Levante, by the suggestion Mbappe could arrive in the coming days.

"The atmosphere in the dressing room is very good because the players are focused on the work they are doing and they are not talking about the market," he said.

"You only talk about the matches and I don't know if everyone then thinks about this.

"I talk to the club every day and the idea that the club have about the future is the same as I have. But I don't think it's fair to talk about it here."

Ancelotti, who has won all four of his LaLiga games against Levante, added: "I don't care what's going to happen in the next few days.

"I have a very good squad that I really want to train with and I'm only focused on the team I have."

Former Madrid favourite Cristiano Ronaldo has also been linked with a return, yet he looks set to stay at Juventus and the idea was dismissed by Ancelotti.

"The issue is settled," he said. "After clearing up the rumours, I just want to say what I said before: the idea of the club is the same as mine.

"After that, everyone knows my affection for Cristiano."

Without bringing in Mbappe or Ronaldo, Madrid are a side seemingly lacking an obvious superstar – but Ancelotti disagrees.

"This squad as it stands can compete with everyone," he said. "We have a lot of top players.

"Courtois, Carvajal, Benzema, Bale, Hazard... I'm going to forget someone. This team is full of stars."

Karim Benzema has certainly picked up the slack since Ronaldo's departure in 2018, with no Madrid player scoring as many goals (89), providing as many assists (30) or playing as many games (148) as the France forward in all competitions in that time.

Benzema this week signed a contract extension to keep him at Madrid until the end of the 2022-23 season.

"Karim is a fundamental part of this team," Ancelotti said. "I'm not going to find out myself. I see him with more personality and more mature.

"It's a pleasure to coach him and watch him play. He has renewed and I am very happy and I think he is very much looking forward to continuing at Real Madrid."

Benzema scored twice in the opening fixture against Alaves and will be looking to net three times across the first two games of a league season for the first time.

That would go a long way to helping Madrid extend their unbeaten run in the competition to 20 matches, the longest current streak.

Cristiano Ronaldo is not in line for a sensational return to Real Madrid despite rumours of a Santiago Bernabeu reunion with Carlo Ancelotti, Los Blancos' head coach has confirmed.

The Portugal international is into the final year of the four-year contract he signed at Juve following his transfer from Madrid in a €112million (£99.2m) deal in July 2018.

Ronaldo has been linked with a move away from Turin with former club Madrid among those to have reportedly been interested in the five-time Ballon d'Or winner.

The superstar forward scored 450 goals and provided 132 assists in 438 appearances during his nine years at Real Madrid between 2009 and 2018.

He played under Ancelotti during the Italian's first spell in charge of Los Blancos between 2013 and 2015 winning the Champions League, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup during that time.

However, Ancelotti posted on Twitter that he has no intention of pursuing a move for the 36-year-old despite holding him in high regard.

"Cristiano Ronaldo is a Real Madrid legend. And I really respect him," Ancelotti posted on Tuesday.

"But I have never asked or planned to sign Cristiano this summer. We're looking forward."

Ronaldo scored 29 times in 2020-21 to win the Capocannoniere last season having previously also been the top scorer in the Premier League and LaLiga.

Juve vice-president Pavel Nedved has previously stated he expected Ronaldo to stay with the club this season.

Massimiliano Allegri's side begin their Serie A campaign on Sunday with an away fixture against Udinese.

 

Carlo Ancelotti described Karim Benzema as the "complete player" after he inspired a 4-1 victory at Alaves in Real Madrid's first game of the LaLiga season.

Benzema scored twice either side of a volley from Nacho, before Vinícius Junior headed in the last of four second-half goals for Madrid in their first competitive game since Ancelotti returned to the club.

Joselu had made it 3-1 from the penalty spot just after Benzema's second goal, but Los Blancos made an impressive start to their bid to regain the title.

Benzema has scored 17 LaLiga goals this year, a tally only bettered by Lionel Messi (23), and he appeared to thrive on wearing the captain's armband with Sergio Ramos having joined Paris Saint-Germain.

Madrid boss Ancelotti feels the France striker has matured into a magnificent all-rounder player.

He said: "Benzema is the completion of the team, reading the situations of the match very well. He is a player I think is not enough to call a forward.

"He is a very complete player. Now he is more complete than five years ago."

Gareth Bale started his first game in the Spanish top flight since June 2020 after a loan spell with Tottenham last season, while Eden Hazard caused Alaves problems after he was also named in the side.

Bale scored in the 2014 Champions League final victory over Atletico Madrid during Ancelotti's first spell at Madrid, but fell out of favour under Zinedine Zidane and there appeared to be no way back for him after he famously held up a 'Wales, golf, Madrid' flag.

Ancelotti is unsure whether the Wales captain has more desire to play for the club now, but says the forward has plenty to offer.

"I do not know if he is more committed than other years, because I was not there," he said. "Bale is going to improve because his condition is not optimal yet, like everyone else's. Everyone can improve."

Madrid have not been beaten in their opening game of a LaLiga campaign since 2008, winning nine and drawing four of their first games since then.

Karim Benzema scored twice as Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti enjoyed an emphatic 4-1 win on his return to LaLiga at Alaves.

Ancelotti left Everton to take charge of Los Blancos for the second time in June following Zinedine Zidane's departure and the Italian secured three points in his first competitive game back at the helm.

Benzema, captaining the side following Sergio Ramos' departure, scored twice in the second half either side of a strike from Nacho at Estadio Mendizorroza on Saturday.

Joselu pulled a one back from the penalty spot before Vinicius Junior added a last-gasp fourth goal as Madrid, with Gareth Bale making his first LaLiga start since June 2020, issued an early statement of intent. 

Luis Rioja cut in from the right and tested Thibaut Courtois with a left-foot drive in a bright start for Alaves, but Madrid soon stamped their authority on the game.

Eden Hazard curled wide from just outside the penalty area and Bale was also off target as Madrid applied the pressure.

Benzema demonstrated exquisite control prior to bending a measured strike narrowly wide of the far post before Rioja poked an effort onto the roof of the net against the run of play.

France striker Benzema was not to be denied in the third minute of the second half, drilling home with his right foot after Hazard cleverly touched Lucas Vazquez's cutback into his path.

Los Blancos were dominant and soon doubled their advantage, the classy Luka Modric conjuring up trickery and an pinpoint cross for Nacho, who volleyed in from close range as Alaves were caught out by a short corner.

Madrid had seemingly only just finished celebrating when Courtois brought down John Guidetti and Joselu gave Alaves hope from the spot with 65 minutes gone.

The hosts were never likely to mount a comeback, though, and Vinicius headed home a cross from new signing David Alaba right at the end.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti insists Martin Odegaard could still have a future at the club amid reported renewed interest from Arsenal.

The Norway international is expected to be left out of Madrid's matchday squad for their LaLiga opener against Deportivo Alaves on Saturday.

After the news emerged in Spain, reports surfaced in England that Arsenal had opened talks with Los Blancos over the prospect of signing Odegaard before the transfer window closes.

The 22-year-old, said to be valued in the region of €40million, made 14 Premier League appearances during a loan spell with the Gunners last season.

However, Ancelotti does not appear to have made a decision on Odegaard's future, or that of fellow fringe players Jesus Vallejo and Dani Ceballos.

"The fact they've not been named in the squad is down just to technical issues," he said on Friday. "The final list [for the 2021-22 season] doesn't have to be confirmed until September 2.

"Odegaard has done well. We had a chat and of course, there is a lot of competition in midfield. We have eight very good midfielders.

"He hasn't been dropped, nor has Ceballos, nor Vallejo."

 

Madrid kick-start their campaign in what will be Ancelotti's first competitive match in charge since he returned to the club from Everton.

Gareth Bale is expected to be involved, having also gone back to the Santiago Bernabeu after spending last season on loan with Tottenham, with previous Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane deeming him surplus to requirements.

Ancelotti now wants to see Bale prove his worth to the club on the pitch.

"He's a great player, perhaps he quite hasn't lived up to expectations in recent times but I've seen him train every day with great enthusiasm and we have to see how he plays. The talking has to be done on the pitch," Ancelotti added.

"There's competition for places – if players don't play well, there are other players. This is good, it's extra motivation. But he's been very good during this first month back, but we'll see how he performs out on the pitch."

Ancelotti is also hoping for a strong start to the season from Eden Hazard, whose career in LaLiga has been blighted by injuries.

The Belgium star has scored just four goals in 21 league starts since his reported €100m transfer from Chelsea in 2019 and did not once complete a full match in the top flight in 2020-21.

"He's been training with the team for about 10 days, he's fit and ready to play," Ancelotti said. "He's a key player in this team and I'm confident we'll see the best Eden Hazard this season. "

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti expressed his shock at Lionel Messi's Barcelona departure in a pre-match news conference that was dominated by questions relating to Kylian Mbappe.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner ended his 21-year association with Barca on Tuesday by penning an initial two-year deal at Paris Saint-Germain with the option of a third.

Messi looked set to sign a new contract with Barca, but the cash-strapped club were unable to fulfil the agreement in place with their greatest ever player.

It means there is a massive void in the Blaugrana's team, given he directly contributed to 39 goals in LaLiga last season – scoring 30 and setting up a further nine.

Antoine Griezmann was the only other player to reach double figures for goal involvements (20), with Ousmane Dembele next on the list with nine.

In will be the first season since 2003-04 that Barca have been unable to call upon Messi, and Ancelotti – set to begin his second spell in charge of Madrid – acknowledged it caught him off guard.

"I'm surprised, shocked," he told reporters ahead of Saturday's LaLiga opener against Deportivo Alaves.

"He was always Barca's emblem really, since he was a child. But I've been in this game 40 years, I've seen lots of players change allegiances. I fully respect his decision and Barcelona's decision."

 

Nevertheless, he does not think the loss of Messi will impact Barca dramatically.

"I'm pretty sure Barca will still be a rival, and Atletico," he continued. "Barca even without Messi is still one of the biggest clubs in the world, I don't think much will change."

Messi's new PSG team-mate Mbappe was also a hot topic of conversation on Friday.

The France international is now in the final year of his contract and has been strongly linked with a move to Madrid for a while, though PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi feels Mbappe now has no excuse not to renew his deal following the arrival of Messi.

Ancelotti was reluctant to speak about Mbappe, even as reporters persistently pressed him on Madrid's apparent interest.

"I'm not keen on talking about players who aren't part of my squad," he told them. "I'm happy with the squad, I've a good mix of veterans and good up-and-coming players.

"I've seen some good young players training, players for the future but who could also be important now, like [Antonio] Blanco, Miguel [Gutierrez], [Marvin] De La Fuente, [Victor] Chust.

"Then there's veterans like Casemiro, Luka Modric... Casemiro's improved a lot since I was last here.

"So, I don't think it's right for me to talk about players who aren't at this club. I'm a football fan and happy to see these players here, seeing them training and working day in, day out.

"I still have a great relationship with the PSG owner, I was of course a coach there, I worked at a fantastic club and had a great working relationship with him, but I don't know what he's thinking [regarding Mbappe's future]."

Another forward Madrid have been linked with is Everton's Richarlison, who Ancelotti coached while at Goodison Park, and the Italian was a little more forthcoming about his opinion on the Brazil attacker.

"I'm really fond of him," he said. "He's an Everton footballer and I don't like to talk about players who play for other clubs, but of course I'm really fond of him."

If the coming LaLiga campaign can match the previous few months for drama, an epic is in store.

The 2021-22 season gets under way this weekend with Spanish football still reeling from Lionel Messi's remarkable Barcelona departure.

The move to Paris Saint-Germain leaves one of LaLiga's grandest clubs without its talisman, while rivals Real Madrid have also seen their captain depart for the French capital on a free transfer.

Where does that leave defending champions Atletico Madrid and the rest heading into the opening weekend? Stats Perform takes a look.

CHAOS IN CATALONIA

Barca still have plenty of world-class players and will this season be able to count on Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Antoine Griezmann and, they hope, Memphis Depay.

But the shocking nature of Messi's exit is going to be tough to move on from, even if the club's dire financial situation does not prevent Depay and the Blaugrana's other new signings from being registered.

Messi either attempted (196) or created (77) 46.8 per cent of Barca's 583 shots in 2020-21 – and he missed three games – so Ronald Koeman's side are going to have to completely change the way they play.

He was already missed when out through injury – Barca won 73.7 per cent of the 520 league games in which Messi featured for the club but just 56.7 per cent of the 120 he did not – and that issue is not going away now.

MADRID COPE WITH CHANGE

Money is tight at Madrid too, but Los Blancos have faced that reality, cutting back spending and agreeing the departures of high earners like Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

Despite Zinedine Zidane's exit, they also look in better shape on the pitch on the eve of the new campaign.

Madrid ended last season unbeaten in 18, the best ongoing run in the competition, with only frustrating late-season draws with Getafe, Real Betis and Sevilla – all in the space of five games – leaving them two points shy of Atletico.

They have gone for a familiar face with a proven track record to replace Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti returning after winning 75 per cent of the league games in his first Madrid stint – trailing only Jose Mourinho (76 per cent win rate) among Madrid coaches to oversee 50 matches or more.

ATLETI AT THE TOP

It is a strange phenomenon for Atleti to be both top of the league and not the target of constant transfer enquiries.

Their key men are unlikely to be poached while Barca and Madrid are so short of cash, with the Blaugrana instead reportedly pursuing a deal going the other way, with Griezmann returning to the Wanda Metropolitano.

The development with Messi appears to have put that idea to bed, and Atleti instead spent the week before the season agreeing new contracts for defensive stars.

Those clubs on the outside of the title race looking in are enjoying unfamiliar comforts too, with Europa League winners Villarreal keeping their best players – including Gerard Moreno, whose 23 goals only trailed Messi – and Real Sociedad bringing back the same team that finished fifth.

Unless Ancelotti quickly restores an ageing Madrid side to past glories, this season could be wide open at the summit.

Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland? How about both? The questions are the same as Real Madrid enter each transfer window. As in 2020, though, such queries are wholly unrealistic.

Prior to last season, which began just six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid were not able to make a single first-team signing. Their most significant business was the €40million sale of Achraf Hakimi to Inter.

It is a similar story 12 months on, having failed to deliver silverware in front of an empty Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium. Free agent David Alaba is Los Blancos' sole recruit and even his arrival is offset by the departures of fellow centre-backs Sergio Ramos – at the end of his contract – and Raphael Varane – with a sale to Manchester United agreed for €50m.

Financial results earlier this month reported a loss in revenue of "close to €300m" due to the pandemic. A post-tax profit of €874,000 for 2020-21 was achieved due to "intense spending saving measures in all areas", read a statement, which added: "With regard to the economic situation, current forecasts indicate that the recovery from the pre-pandemic situation will not be immediate. In this context, the club will continue in the effort so far to contain spending."

One of the world's grandest clubs are doing things on the cheap. A change of coach was only initiated by Zinedine Zidane, whose replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, has been plucked from mid-table Everton – although Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri claimed this week he was offered the position.

Ancelotti has been here before, of course, having led Madrid to 'La Decima' in 2013-14 after a 12-year wait. How he raises the club again without this time breaking the world transfer record two months into the role is another question – one Stats Perform attempts to answer with the aid of Opta data.

Return of rapid Real?

Just as Ancelotti is returning to Madrid, so too is Gareth Bale. It was he who Madrid splashed out €100m on to inspire Ancelotti's first side to Champions League glory. Now he could be handed a starring role again.

The winger appeared to have no future under Zidane but will surely be the chief beneficiary if Ancelotti returns the team to the attacking approach he employed previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. Across his two seasons at the helm, Madrid scored 222 LaLiga goals – 22 more than across the past three campaigns combined now.

That would mean a significant shift, though. Zidane's men have not just scored fewer goals, they have moved at a slower pace. Madrid averaged 4.7 passes and 12.7 seconds per sequence in the league in 2020-21, with 662 open-play sequences of 10 passes or more. In 2013-14, with Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria leading a rapid forward line, Madrid's sequences typically lasted only 3.9 passes and 10.3 seconds, with just 475 10-plus pass sequences. Those numbers only marginally increased in Ancelotti's second season.

 

This change in style is also evidenced by Madrid's direct speed, having moved 1.93 metres upfield per second in 2013-14 but just 1.41 in an average sequence last term. Making the most of the attributes of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria, that Madrid team had 122 direct attacks but only 112 build-up attacks – figures that have altered drastically in opposite directions to 87 and 165 respectively.

The football under Ancelotti was undoubtedly exciting and appeals again. Even as he was sacked in 2015, president Florentino Perez said: "The affection that the players and the fans have for Carlo is the same as the affection I myself have for him." Implementing that system again may not be entirely straightforward, though.

Ancelotti arrived in 2013 only a year removed from the 121-goal 2011-12 LaLiga campaign – the most Madrid have ever scored in a season. The Italian gave his superstars the freedom to play but did not need to reconfigure their approach. That tallies with the rest of a glittering career to date, which has chiefly seen him credited with man-managing big names rather than introducing the sort of tactical tweaks that might almost double a team's attacking output.

If that is Ancelotti's desire, though, between Bale, Vinicius Junior and Eden Hazard, Madrid should at least still have the players to tear through teams at pace. Indeed, getting Hazard fit and firing two years and four goals into his LaLiga career will be as crucial as rehabilitating Bale. The former Chelsea forward may put the famed 'diva whisperer' to the test, but Madrid cannot afford to have a €100m man not contributing.

Age is against Ancelotti

Madrid's play without the ball has also changed in the time Ancelotti has been away, and getting them to perform in this regard as they did during his first stint will be more difficult still. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro – Madrid's long-standing midfield trio – were on board when Ancelotti left the club six years ago. Modric will be 36 in September. Class and experience are on their side, but the energy of youth is not.

With Di Maria occupying a key role in the 4-2-3-1 formation and Modric finding his feet in Spain, Madrid pressed relentlessly in 2013-14. Opponents were allowed only 9.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) amid Los Blancos' 499 pressed sequences. As a result, Madrid's attacks started 42.3 metres upfield on average, boosted by their 179 high turnovers, of which 45 led to shots and nine to goals.

Even Ancelotti could not maintain these standards the following year, as Di Maria departed for the Premier League while a thigh injury restricted Modric to 16 games. Madrid regressed in every category.

In 2021, it is not that Madrid do not press, it is that they do not do so with the same intensity. There were 430 pressed sequences last term and still an impressive 178 high turnovers, but opponents were allowed 11.3 PPDA, with Madrid unable to harry at a comparable rate. It is unlikely that statistic improves as Kroos also moves through his thirties and yet more minutes are pumped into the legs of one of modern football's great midfields. The emergence of Federico Valverde – young and versatile – helps, but Ancelotti may well face the unenviable task of dismantling a unit he helped put together.

 

Alaba alters the complexion

To this point, with a former coach returning to guide the same players, Madrid's approach appears closer to devolution than evolution or revolution. The defence at least will ensure this team has a new sheen, albeit not one that necessarily improves Ancelotti's chances of success at home or abroad.

Alaba is a fine player with vast experience, six years younger than Ramos but with 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. It is a like-for-like change that makes sense, even with Ramos' emotional ties to the Bernabeu. However, asking Alaba to also replace Varane, the outgoing captain's stalwart defensive partner, feels like a tough ask.

Rather than settle into a new club in a new country alongside a World Cup winner – "Varane, of course, I would like to play with him," Alaba said as recently as last week – Madrid's sole signing seems set to be asked to perform the role of the senior man alongside Eder Militao, who has made just 23 LaLiga starts across two seasons.

Yet Militao crucially has attributes Alaba does not, with the converted full-back far less combative than the two departed defenders. At Bayern, in the Bundesliga last season, Alaba contested only 5.0 duels per 90 minutes – fewer than Varane (5.4), Ramos (6.4) and Militao (7.9) in LaLiga. He won just 55.4 per cent of those, another low as Varane (67.9 per cent) led the way.

Militao could then be tasked with getting tight to opposition forwards, but Alaba might find it tougher to avoid being picked on in the air. He contested a meagre 1.2 aerial duels per 90, down on 2.3 for Varane, 4.3 for Ramos and 5.2 for Militao. As Varane won a league-leading 76.0 per cent of these duels and Ramos came out on top in 63.8 per cent, opponents faced a scrap against either centre-back. Alaba's 51.4 per cent success rate shows why he tends to avoid such encounters.

An area of real strength for Madrid could now become a weakness. Only Sevilla (four) conceded fewer headed goals than Madrid (five) in the league last term, while Real Betis (five goals conceded) were the sole side to be tighter from set-pieces than Zidane's outfit (six). With Ramos and Varane marshalling the area, Madrid faced the fourth-fewest headed attempts (58). They are unlikely to rank as impressively again with 5ft 11in Alaba at the heart of the defence.

Madrid are unlikely to make the most of Alaba's versatility – well stocked at left-back but now short in the middle of the back line – yet his ability on the ball, honed in different roles, should at least help to keep Ancelotti's men on the front foot. Part of a dominant Bayern team, Alaba was involved in 4.6 shot-ending sequences and 0.7 goal-ending sequences per 90, having a bigger hand in such opportunities than Ramos (3.9 and 0.4) or Varane (2.9 and 0.3).

Being able to start attacks from the back plays into the idea Madrid should be set up to again thrill supporters under Ancelotti. Whether they can combine entertainment with results, as the 2013-14 team did so successfully, might be another matter.

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