Al Ahly must find way to curb Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior in Club World Cup semi-final

The brilliant Brazilian, the most fouled player in Europe, has been the target of roughhouse tactics of late

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Daunting though they look whenever Real Madrid take their roadshow to the world, this just might be a good moment to startle the European champions.

Al Ahly meet them in North Africa for a place in the Fifa Club World Cup final encouraged that key players from the spine of the Madrid team are absent, their form is erratic and head coach Carlo Ancelotti seems on edge.

Ancelotti addressed the media in Rabat on Tuesday robustly protecting Vinicius Junior, the Brazilian winger who has been subjected to brutal attention on the pitch and vile chants and gestures off it in a new year that has not been kind to Madrid in terms of results.

“He’s the victim of things I don’t understand,” said Ancelotti, “yet it sometimes appears Vinicius is made out to be the problem. The problem is what’s happening around him.”

That would include sustained fouling by opponents, taunts and racist abuse from spectators, as shown by television footage during the weekend’s 1-0 defeat at Real Mallorca.

Ancelotti hopes a trophy, the Club World Cup, might alleviate on-field concerns, although he continues to bemoan a calendar without respite for a club who have dropped points in three of their last five Liga matches and last month lost a Super Cup final to Barcelona.

While Ancelotti says he sees “signs the team is growing,” he acknowledges his Madrid take on a “well-organised and fast” Al Ahly at well below their best.

Missing at the Moulay Abdellah Stadium in the Moroccan capital will be the two players who more than any guided Madrid to the European Cup last May in an extraordinary run of comebacks.

Ballon D’Or holder Karim Benzema, with a muscle strain, will not be available to re-enact the hat-tricks he scored against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea last spring or indeed the three goals he put past Manchester City across two dramatic legs of the semi-final.

Mallorca 1 Real Madrid 0 - in pictures

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, outstanding in the final against Liverpool, is also out. Courtois pulled up during the warm-up at Mallorca and will be replaced by back-up gloveman Andriy Lunin. Defenders Eder Miltao and Ferland Mendy are still recuperating from injury in Spain.

A small wonder is that Vinicius, who scored the goal that delivered Madrid’s 14th European Cup in Paris, is not among the wounded.

He continues to set the high bar as the most fouled footballer in Europe’s major domestic leagues and at the weekend increased his lead in that unwanted table of the battered and bruised through the rugged attention of Mallorca markers.

Some tried to provoke him off the ball. Not for the first time this season, Vinicius was abused from the grandstands. “It’s a problem for Spanish football and it has to be resolved,” said Ancelotti.

Ancelotti hopes one or two of the injured, notably Benzema, may be fit enough to join Madrid in Morocco should they overcome Al Ahly.

It is almost a given that the European candidate in a Club World Cup makes the final – the last time the trophy did not go to Europe was after Corinthians beat Chelsea in 2012 – and for all that Madrid have half an eye on forthcoming ties against Liverpool in the Champions League and Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, winning the Fifa tournament is a prestigious priority.

They make a habit of it, most recently by beating Al Ain in the 2018 final.

That was 24-year-old midfielder Fede Valverde’s first trophy with Madrid.

“It means a lot to me,” Valverde said, while analysing the challenges of what he calls “the new football – games every two or three days and less time off”.

When Madrid take the field tonight, 24 days after losing the Super Cup in Riyadh, they will be taking part in a fourth different competition on a third continent since mid-January.

Ancelotti expects to be made very aware of what continent he is on this evening.

“Al Ahly have a fantastic history in Africa,” said the Italian of the 10-times African champions. “We have tremendous respect for them and what the Club World Cup means for them.”

At the last two editions, and in 2006, it meant third place. The Egyptians, in Morocco as runners-up to Casablanca’s Wydad Athletic Club in the last African Champions League and victors so far against Auckland City and Seattle Sounders, aspire to going one better.

Inevitably, there will be an emphasis on containing Vinicius.

“We’ve got to avoid him winning the one-on-ones,” said Al Ahly head coach Marcel Koller, “but we’re not going to just sit back and wait.”

Updated: February 08, 2023, 2:38 AM