Ahead of the 17th Real-Atletico derby of his coaching career, Carlo Ancelotti took the precaution of praising the referee. Cesar Soto Grado, the 42-year-old official designated for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final at the Bernabeu, is, noted Ancelotti, “young and has character. I like him.”
Which, as Ancelotti has learned over a football career that started before Soto Grado was born, is the right thing to say in a pre-match press conference where advice is indirectly being given to the man with the whistle. The Real Madrid manager also addressed the hot topic of how his livewire winger, Vinicius Junior, keeps being fouled.
“In every sense, Vini needs protecting,” said Ancelotti of the Brazilian, subject of criticism for a perceived dip in form and for his showy antics at moments of celebration. “In fact, football needs people like Vinicius.”
It needs, he implied, its thrilling entertainers, as Vinicius is with his speed and unique control of the ball at pace. Ancelotti was signalling that referees have a responsibility to punish those who act outside the rules to combat the Vinicius skill-set.
No player in the top five leagues of Europe suffers more fouls per match than Vinicius: there were 62 committed against him in the 17 Liga games he has taken part in this season. If that indicates that some referees are applying a degree of vigilance to the rough attention Vinicius draws, Ancelotti would like the scrutiny upped and made more consistent.
“Luckily, he has a superb physique,” said Ancelotti, on the player’s capacity to overcome all the knocks and bruises, “and he doesn’t complain. His mentality is the key. I see it in his motivation and his focus.”
The veteran Italian coach has been an influential guide in the blossoming of Vini Jr, a player bought by Madrid in his teens, their faith in him reflected in the size of the fee – €45 million to Flamengo – given his tender years. Under other Madrid coaches, he developed a reputation for being erratic, reliably unreliable as a finisher.
When Ancelotti returned to Madrid for a second stint in charge 18 months ago, all that changed. Vinicius made the penultimate of his 20 assists in a brilliant campaign to confirm the league title; his 22nd goal of 2021/22 decided the Champions League final against Liverpool.
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His follow-up has been lower-key, and although Vinicius began this season brightly, his run of just one goal in 10 Liga matches either side of his World Cup with Brazil coincided with Madrid losing the leadership of title race.
Ancelotti remains steadfast in his backing of a “great player, who has earned great respect, but who gets constant stick from the opposition kicking at him, from fans and even from referees.” Vinicius has also endured some vile racist abuse at away stadiums, notably at Valladolid, and, in the autumn, at Atletico’s Metropolitano Stadium.
That was Vinicius’ most recent of his nine Madrid derbies, a fixture in which he has come to expect rugged attention on the pitch since his first start in one, when he won a penalty and was subsequently accused of ensuring he fell inside the area after a foul from Jose Maria Gimenez – the first contact took place outside it.
Vinicius, coming off the bench at half time, would play a part in the goal that settled the Bernabeu derby in 2019/20, but his overall record against Atletico is understated, other than the two goals he set up in last season’s 2-0 home win.
The stakes on Thursday are high. Madrid face a potentially tumultuous month, having fallen behind Barcelona in the Liga race and lost the Spanish Super Cup final 3-1 to Barca. They go to the Club World Cup in Morocco at the end of next week and then to Anfield to meet Liverpool for their last-16 stage of their defence of the European Cup.
For Atletico, elimination from the Copa would effectively end prospects of any silverware in what has been a troubling campaign. They finished bottom of their group in the Champions League, ousted from Europe by mid-November. Atletico, Liga winners in 2021, sit fifth in the Spanish table, 13 points beneath leaders Barcelona and 10 shy of Real Madrid.
Where Atletico men have collected medals is at the World Cup, and a strong likelihood is that their trio of victorious Argentinians will all start at the Bernabeu: That’s Nahuel Molina at right-back, Rodrigo de Paul immediately in front of him, and Angel Correa manning the wing. They will be under orders to mark close and tackle hard – because that’s the flank Vinicius jets up and down.