Real Madrid head to Las Vegas looking for clasico revenge against Barcelona

Pre-season friendly in United States sees with Ancelotti's double winners taking on Catalan rivals boosted by Lewandowski's arrival

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Football’s most celebrated club fixture comes to Las Vegas this weekend, and although it is a pre-season game, all clasicos carry competitive bite.

There’s a fresh aspect to the eternal grudge between Barcelona and Real Madrid, too, dating from their surreal last meeting. Back in March, at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid wore all black, had Luka Modric playing at centre-forward, and, most surprisingly, lost to Barca by a thumping 4-0 scoreline.

It made no difference to the destiny of the Liga title, won at canter by a Real Madrid who had at that stage embarked on an extraordinary set of adventures, comeback after comeback, in the knockouts of European Cup, a trophy they collected for the 14th time in the club’s history after beating Liverpool in Paris.

Since then, a calm, ordered close-season has been under way. Madrid failed in their bid to land their No 1 target in the market, Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe, but continue to build their collection of talented French players, with Aurelien Tchouameni their big-money new signing. The 22-year-old is earmarked for a midfield place long into the future, alongside last summer’s French capture, Eduardo Camavinga.

Antonio Rudiger, out of contract at Chelsea, has arrived to reinforce a defence that, in achieving the double last season, missed the departed Sergio Ramos and Rafa Varane, two long-term pillars of the side, less than expected.

Rudiger, though, has been reminded since linking up within his new teammates that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, his former Chelsea colleague, was the principal and outstanding protector of Madrid at the back in 2021/22.

If Madrid are to recapture their domestic and European prizes in the coming campaign, they will likely need Courtois to maintain his excellence, and Karim Benzema, at the other end of the pitch, to keep similar standards to those he rose to in the last 10 months.

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Benzema is the leading candidate to win this year’s Ballon d’Or, on the back of his 44 goals, his leadership, and the hat-tricks in Europe that inspired the come-from-behind triumphs on the road to the winning final against Liverpool.

The concern for Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, ahead of a season where senior players are bound to be affected with fatigue because of the November-December World Cup in Qatar, is that cover for the goalkeeper and especially for his 34-year-old France international centre-forward that looks thin.

Luka Jovic, the Serbian striker who struggled for form following his €60m purchase from Eintracht Frankfurt in 2019, has put an end to his three-year misadventure in Madrid by joining Fiorentina. Gareth Bale is at last off the wage bill, after nine years in which spectacular success with Madrid was followed by a long uncomfortable period on the margins.

Both were, in theory at least, back-ups for Benzema. There are few others. One lesson of that peculiar 4-0 Barcelona win in March was that, in the absence of Benzema, Modric as a ‘false nine’ is not a solution – “it was a mistake,” Ancelotti admitted afterwards.

The best alternative available is probably Vinicius Junior applying his improvements as a finisher to a more central position that his usual role attacking, at pace, from the left wing.

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Vinicius scored the only goal of the Champions League final, capping a brilliant nine months for the 22-year-old Brazilian and offering one of several lines of encouragement for madridistas concerned about the club’s dependence on their so-called ‘old guard’.

Modric, still full of energy, will turn 37 in September. His long-time allies in midfield, Tony Kroos and Casemiro, are 32 and 30. They each now know they have hungry, ambitious understudies.

The precocious Camavinga, who turns 20 in November, impressed coming off the bench in the Champions League, where Federico Valverde, 23, was in the starting XI for the final and the preceding five games of the see-saw knockout phase. And Madrid did not commit to Monaco €80 million – with possible add-ons of €20m – for Tchouameni, 22, without envisaging for him a long-term, commanding role in their midfield.

So far in this summer window, no transfer has fetched a higher fee than Tchouameni’s, but Madrid would acknowledge moves elsewhere have drawn more headlines.

For instance: Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, who have been busy in their trading. Or even the transfer from Leeds United to Barca of Raphinha, who took it on himself to declare, ahead of the Las Vegas clasico, “for me, we’re better than Real Madrid.”

A 13-point gap between the rivals in last season’s Liga table, not to mention Barcelona’s failure to get out of the group in the last Champions League, says otherwise. But Madrid will still remember that 4-0 shock from the spring, and note that, in Lewandowski, Barcelona have armed themselves for the season ahead with a centre-forward of Benzema’s calibre.

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Updated: July 22, 2022, 4:46 AM
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