David Alaba and Real Madrid set for defensive test against Barcelona firepower in Clasico

Los Blancos head into Sunday's La Liga showdown 10 points clear at top but facing a team revitalised under Xavi

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There is no better way to make a lasting favourable impression on the supporters of either of Spain’s giant clubs than to score in your first Real Madrid versus Barcelona clasico. Better still if you make it a spectacular strike.

You make yourself even more popular if the goal sets up victory. Add another layer of praise if the goal is a break from the usual routine, like a defender pushing against his normal boundaries.

That was David Alaba, beginning a swift counter-attack with a confident pass just in front the Madrid penalty area he was defending at Camp Nou last October, and finishing the move by tearing up the pitch, receiving the ball back just outside the Barcelona penalty box and sweeping a left-footed drive past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

That put Madrid 1-0 up in a clasico they ended up winning 2-1. It put Alaba’s wide repertoire of skills on display to madridistas still learning about the Austrian, two months into a new chapter of his career.

Alaba last summer joined Madrid from Bayern Munich, where, after 12 years attached to the serial German champions, he had let his contract run down so he could move without a transfer fee and give himself a choice of destination.

There was no shortage of potential suitors. Very few elite clubs would truly say their squads could not make use of a footballer who commands the positions of left-back, centre-back and creative midfielder, the latter role being one he has filled with distinction for the Austria national team he captains.

Once Madrid made it clear they wanted Alaba, principally as a central defender, they showed how vital they imagined he would be. The club were willing to say goodbye to their iconic, goalscoring central defender and skipper, Sergio Ramos, 35, on the expectation of Alaba arriving.

Madrid were also ready to sell Raphael Varane, whose partnership with Ramos had served the club through four European Cup-winning campaigns, because they trusted that Alaba could be part of as formidable a pairing as Ramos and Varane had become.

His rider in tandem had already been identified. Eder Militao joined from Porto for around €50 millon in the summer of 2019. He was 21 and already a full international for Brazil. Tall and lean, he was being measured up for the future Ramos succession, although he would need to be patient.

The early months were not straightforward for Militao. His first season would end with a Liga winners’ medal, but it was also the campaign that became dubbed as “the Liga of Ramos,” so influential, at both ends of the pitch, was the then Madrid captain.

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The saga of whether or not Madrid and Ramos would agree a new contract dragged through the following year, and the effect was to cast extra judgment on Militao. When he made errors - and they became less and less frequent - madridistas would ask if the club could manage without Ramos.

The answer became a more confident yes as the Brazilian, strong in his duels, formidable in the air, grew into his role. “He’s a super player,” enthused Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid manager, a few weeks after taking over from Zinedine Zidane at the start of this season. “Ancelotti has given me the confidence every footballer needs,” Militao told reporters.

He has won all his clasicos so far, too, and in his time at Madrid is yet to even see his club lose one even from the bench, although both he and Alaba will appreciate that Sunday’s meeting with Barcelona at the Bernabeu will present a new array of challenges for the second tightest defence – Sevilla have conceded 19 league goals, leaders Madrid 21 this season – in La Liga.

Since the October afternoon when Alaba struck his rocket at Camp Nou, Barca have brought Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traore and Ferran Torres into their attack, with emphatic effect on the team’s potency.

“Militao and Alaba have fitted in very well,” said Casemiro, the midfielder who so effectively patrols the space in front of Madrid’s central defenders. Alaba, the star clasico debutant, has also quickly gauged what his home crowd like to hear from players about the club’s success-laden history.

After Paris Saint-Germain had been dramatically eliminated from the Champions League last week by Karim Benzema’s hat-trick that turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 aggregate victory, Alaba spontaneously picked up a plastic chair from pitchside, gesturing that Madrid would not deposed from their throne as the European Cup’s greatest achievers.

“I was overcome with the emotion,” he explained. “Anyway, it’s good to invent a new celebration.” This one may become his trademark.

Real Madrid's Eder Militao (R) in action against Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe (L) during the UEFA Champions League round of 16, second leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in Madrid, Spain, 09 March 2022.   EPA / Sergio Perez
Updated: March 19, 2022, 4:45 AM