Ronald Koeman will get his first taste of El Clasico from a dugout when Barcelona host Real Madrid on Saturday.

The LaLiga champions head to Camp Nou after a pretty rotten week in which back-to-back home defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk have left fans and pundits alike thoroughly disillusioned with Zinedine Zidane's current approach.

Barca also lost 1-0 in their previous league game, away to Getafe, but a 5-1 thumping of Ferencvaros in the Champions League was a tonic and, in truth, that defeat at Coliseum Alfonso Perez felt more like an aberration during what has mostly been an encouraging start under Koeman.

The Clasico is always the acid test, though – and Barca, barring a dramatic change in system, will line up for this one in a 4-2-3-1 formation, something they have not done for at least the previous 46 meetings.

BREAKING THE WHEEL

Nobody need tell Koeman about Barca's traditional adherence to 4-3-3. He had enough experience as a player for the Netherlands and the Blaugrana to know such a system like the back of his hand, even if Johan Cruyff's peak 'Dream Team' – such as the one that won the 1992 European Cup final through a Koeman extra-time goal – thrived instead in a 3-4-3.

The fact is, though, that Barca have doubled down on 4-3-3 since Frank Rijkaard took charge in 2003. He, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and, eventually, Quique Setien – all have either stuck religiously to the system or at least made good use of it.

That rings true in the Clasico, too. Since the 2005-06 season, there have been 46 matches between Barca and Madrid in all competitions, and Barca have started in a 4-3-3 in 39 of them. Four games have seen them set up in a 4-4-2, and one each in 3-4-3, 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2.

It's yielded mixed success, as you might expect. Barca won 17 of those 39 games in 4-3-3 – a 43.6 per cent winning rate – and lost 12. They scored 71 goals and conceded 53.

In 4-4-2, they won twice, drew once and lost once, scoring eight goals and conceding four. The 3-4-3 was, fittingly, a 3-3 LaLiga draw in October 2007; the 4-3-1-2 was that famous 3-2 win for Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu under Luis Enrique in 2017, when Lionel Messi scored his 500th club goal; and the 3-5-2 was used by Valverde when they lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana second leg in the capital three years ago.

Koeman's set-up, then, is a big departure from the norm. But will it work against Madrid?

FATI AND FRENKIE ON FIRE

Koeman explained this month that 4-2-3-1 was preferable because of Barca's lack of wingers. "Looking at the quality that we have, this formation is perfect for the team," he told Barca TV.

Fans may not have warmed to the idea at first, but Koeman's approach makes sense – and there are certain players thriving in this formation.

For one thing, it gets Ansu Fati involved closer to goal. In four league games, the young Spain star has attempted 15 dribbles, created three chances and scored three goals. The freedom to cut inside from the left has also liberated Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest at left-back, each of whom have also created three goalscoring chances. Given Madrid presently have no fully fit right-backs, that should worry Zidane.

Another to benefit is Frenkie de Jong, a player who admitted to underwhelming in his first season after joining from Ajax for an initial €75million. He has performed positively in a central axis, usually alongside Sergio Busquets, asserting himself in games far more even though Barca's average possession figure has dropped to 59.2 per cent, lower than in any of the past 11 seasons.

He, too, has created three goalscoring chances and has a remarkable 100 per cent success rate from 11 attempted dribbles. He has also completed 216 passes, behind only the more possession-focused Gerard Pique (255) and Busquets (261). He is a player with renewed confidence in breaking lines in transition and getting the ball into threatening areas, and Madrid's midfield three will have a real test on their hands to cover the space of Barca's four forwards while keeping De Jong quiet.

And Messi? Koeman said before the Ferencvaros game that his captain's form "could be better", and he had a point – one goal (a penalty) and zero assists from four league games is an unusually modest return. He is also averaging 3.9 shots per game, his lowest rate since 2007-08.

Still, Messi has created more chances (six), attempted more dribbles (19) and more shots (15) than any other Barca player in the league this season, and he may be about to face a Madrid defence without Sergio Ramos.

A Clasico showdown against Real Madrid, or West Ham away?

Before Lionel Messi steps out onto the Camp Nou pitch on Saturday, remember this: he had made up his mind, and he had chosen West Ham away.

Playing for Manchester City was Messi's plan for 2020-21, it is believed, and if that meant sacrificing leading Barcelona against their greatest rivals, shucks to it.

Messi must have thought he had nothing left to prove in this fixture, being already the top scorer in Clasico history with 26 goals across all competitions, way ahead of names such as Alfredo di Stefano, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul and Cesar Rodriguez.

Eighteen of those goals have come in LaLiga, from 27 appearances, and he has averaged one goal involvement per game in the league thanks to nine assists.

However, he has failed to score in his last five Clasico games - three in the league and two in the Copa del Rey.

This weekend, with the world watching, Barcelona need the real Messi to stand up.


Still the same player?

Before the king of the Clasico faces Los Blancos one more time, team-mate Ansu Fati was moved to comment this week that "Messi is still Messi".

The 17-year-old spoke after Messi's early penalty helped Barcelona to a 5-1 Champions League win over Ferencvaros.

Yet heading into that game, Barcelona's new head coach Ronald Koeman said Messi's form "could be better", cosseting that in sufficient pleasantries to avoid any blowback.

As for who is right - Fati or Koeman - it is hard to dispute the experienced Dutchman's verdict.

Doubtless Fati loves playing with 33-year-old Messi, because what teenager wouldn't relish every minute playing with an all-time great?

But Messi's numbers are down in the early weeks of this LaLiga season, with his average attempted dribbles per game down from 8.58 in 2019-20 to just 4.75, and his shots on target per game at a relatively meagre 1.75 when he has averaged 2.15 or higher in each campaign over the past decade.

One goal in four LaLiga matches in 2020-21 equates to his slowest start to a season since 2005-06, when the teenage Messi failed to score in his first four games.

The Clasico drought

Those five goalless games in Spain's biggest match have consisted of four starts and one appearance off the bench, amounting to 425 minutes of football without a goal, his second longest run without netting in the Clasico - behind a six-game sequence from April 2014 to December 2016.

He has failed to score with his last 16 shots in the fixture and has not been on the winning side in a LaLiga Clasico at Camp Nou since Barcelona's 2-1 victory in March 2015, having missed the 5-1 success in October 2018 because of a fractured arm.

He has not had a goal involvement - scoring or assisting - in the last three Clasico league games, putting him one away from what from that statistical perspective would be the worst run of his career.

And the goal return from Messi in Barcelona's biggest home league match of the season has been modest - albeit only by his extraordinary standards - for some time.

He scored twice in a 2-2 draw in October 2012 and netted once when the team played out the same result in May 2018, but those are the only goals he has scored in this LaLiga game since a late strike sealed a 2-0 win in 2008.

Nobody has scored more Clasico league goals at Camp Nou than Messi's haul of seven, which he launched with a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw back in March 2007.

But the big-game returns are diminishing with time, or at least that is how it seems.

Has Messi become a flat-track bully?

The instinctive response is to challenge the use of such a reductive term to describe a footballer so eminent.

The transition happens time and again though, from sport to sport. The ageing superstars who once routinely tormented elite rivals serve up reminders of their most glorious days in flashes, often against more limited opposition than before. Case in point: Messi looked sublime at times against Ferencvaros.

In tennis, Roger Federer can still toy with low-ranked tennis players to the point of doling out early-round humiliations, but will he win another grand slam title, having recently turned 39? No, probably not. Will Messi win another Champions League? No, probably not. It is hard to see it happening at a crisis-hit Barcelona, anyway.

Messi's haul of 25 LaLiga goals last season was his lowest since he scored 23 in the 2008-09 treble-winning campaign, when Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were also scavenging for chances.

But if he is not scoring consistently against Real Madrid, and if he was powerless to prevent Bayern Munich's rout of Barcelona in the Champions League back in August, then where is Messi making his big difference heading into his mid-thirties?

Since the start of August 2018, in LaLiga he has scored eight goals against Eibar, five each against Real Betis, Levante, Alaves and Sevilla, and four apiece against Real Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Espanyol.

Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao are the two teams who have defied him throughout that time.

A leaving present

If this is to be Messi's sign-off stretch with Barcelona - and given his recent state of vexation that seems highly possible - then it is to be assumed he wants to depart with a swagger rather than a shrug of a season.

Had Barcelona's board acquiesced to Messi's departure at the end of last term, this weekend's kick-off in El Clasico would have coincided with the Argentinian winding down at the London Stadium after a lunchtime outing for Pep Guardiola's City against David Moyes' Hammers.

Perhaps Messi would have tuned in for El Clasico on the team coach; perhaps not.

Messi was prepared to sacrifice the Clasico - the hysteria and the history that surrounds it - and that summed up the schism that had developed between him and the club's leadership.

He has since lost good friends Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal, offloaded to Atletico Madrid and Inter, and lost some of his sparkle at the same time.

Suarez and Vidal won't be coming back, but the sparkle still might. There were flashes against Ferencvaros - again, take the opposition into account - but a Clasico against a wobbling Madrid side seems as good an occasion as any for Messi to serve up a reminder of his greatness.

If he can lift himself for any game, it must be this one.

Zinedine Zidane led Real Madrid to LaLiga glory last season as Los Blancos dethroned bitter rivals Barcelona.

But, Zidane's position is far from certain amid a run of consecutive defeats in 2020-21.

Madrid are reportedly willing to part with their head coach if he cannot arrest the club's slump.

 

TOP STORY – ZIDANE FACING SACK

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane could be sacked if results do not improve in the team's next two games, according to L'Equipe.

Zidane is under mounting pressure following back-to-back defeats after Madrid were stunned by newly promoted Cadiz in LaLiga and shocked by Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.

The Frenchman – in his second spell in charge of the Spanish capital club – is facing a crucial period ahead of Saturday's Clasico against Barcelona and a Champions League date with Borussia Monchengladbach.

Madrid great Zidane has guided Los Blancos to two LaLiga titles and three Champions League trophies during his time in charge.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato says Barcelona are ahead of Serie A titleholders Juventus in the race to sign Wolves star Adama Traore. The Spanish speedster has also been linked to Premier League champions Liverpool and Manchester City.

Manchester United and Chelsea are set to rival Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich for Gladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria, reports Bild.

- Calciomercato reports Milan are looking to sign Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Lovro Majer. The 22-year-old has already been linked with Borussia Dortmund, Fiorentina, Leeds United, Valencia and Sevilla.

The pressure is firmly on Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid heading into Saturday's Clasico at Barcelona.

Madrid were crowned LaLiga champions just three months ago, but recent results have altered the narrative considerably prior to the clash at Camp Nou.

Los Blancos lost to Cadiz in the league last week and then on Wednesday suffered a remarkable Champions League reverse at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk, who were missing 10 first-team players due to coronavirus.

These defeats followed the closing of a transfer window in which Madrid did not make a single signing, leaving Zidane short on options.

The prospect of this campaign quickly crumbling is especially painful for those in the Spanish capital after they appeared set to finally dominate rivals Barca once more...
 

MADRID'S BIG OPPORTUNITY

Madrid won the most recent Clasico in March, but they have not beaten Barca in consecutive LaLiga matches since May 2008.

On that occasion, the Blaugrana promptly appointed Pep Guardiola and became Spain's premier domestic side. Madrid's 2019-20 title was just their third since then, despite their Champions League supremacy.

But this season seemed to represent a chance for Madrid to secure a hold over Barca and stage a successful defence of their championship for the first time since that 2007-08 campaign.

Barca were embarrassed in the Champions League by Bayern Munich late last season, leading to the sacking of Quique Setien, the appointment of Ronald Koeman and subsequent departures of Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, and of course Lionel Messi's transfer request.

While Messi stayed in the end, the current campaign is widely expected to be his last, meaning Madrid would need only to master the magnificent number 10 and his crisis club one final time.

There was modest investment at Barca, at least topping Madrid's outlay of zero, but the arrivals of Miralem Pjanic and Sergino Dest looked unlikely to turn the tide after the champions ended last season in stunning style.
 

WHERE HAS IT GONE WRONG?

Madrid won 10 straight matches after the 2019-20 season – paused amid COVID-19 – resumed in June, dropping points only in a draw against Leganes on the final day when the title was wrapped up.

A goalless stalemate at Real Sociedad then represented an opening-day setback this term, yet Madrid's form was still relatively steady until the Cadiz match, a 1-0 loss.

Reassessing their start after that defeat, however, shows a clear regression from the end of the previous campaign in one key area: their finishing.

In the final 11 matches of last season, Madrid's shooting accuracy (excluding blocks) only once dipped below 50 per cent – in a 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao – but is yet to reach that mark at all in five games this term.

Against Cadiz, Zidane's side had 74.8 per cent of the ball – more than in any other fixture since June – yet hit the target just twice from 14 attempts.

Crucially, Karim Benzema has gone off the boil. Only he and Federico Valverde have played in all 16 league games since June, the Frenchman scoring seven times from 28 shots at the end of last season, as well as creating six big chances.

In 2020-21, Benzema has netted only once in the league at a conversion rate of 5.3 per cent, while his shot accuracy is down from 72 per cent to 50 per cent and he has already missed as many big chances (three) in five games as he did in 11.
 

IS THERE A SIMPLE FIX?

Given their lack of transfer activity, leaving the squad a little stale, Madrid have no choice but to wait for Benzema to rediscover the form that saw him net 21 times in consecutive seasons following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit.

There remains no obvious alternative, with Luka Jovic handed another opportunity but so far failing to score and missing his only big chance across three matches. Vinicius Junior has also passed up a trio of clear openings.

The defensive concerns evident against Shakhtar should at least be eased by the return of Sergio Ramos, the captain substituted at half-time at home to Cadiz and then rested in Europe.

Raphael Varane endured another Champions League night to forget in his absence, adding an own goal to his two errors leading to goals in August's 2-1 defeat at Manchester City.

In fact, Madrid have now lost seven of their past eight Champions League games without their skipper – also including the trip to City.

This dependence on a 32-year-old Benzema and 34-year-old Ramos must be a cause for concern given Barca were supposed to be the ageing side.

It certainly suggests Madrid might not find life as straightforward as expected as they attempt to step into the void to be left by Messi.

Zinedine Zidane believes he can arrest Real Madrid's form slump and restore order amid growing pressure after the club's shock Champions League loss to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Madrid suffered back-to-back home defeats in all competitions under head coach Zidane for the first time following Wednesday's 3-2 loss against visiting Shakhtar in their Group B opener, having been stunned 1-0 by newly promoted Cadiz in LaLiga at the weekend.

Shakhtar led 3-0 at half-time as Madrid conceded three first-half goals in a Champions League match for the first time in 15 years, before Los Blancos rallied through Luka Modric and Vinicius Junior goals in the second 45 minutes but it was not enough.

Pressure is mounting on Zidane ahead of Saturday's Clasico showdown against Barcelona after Madrid tasted a third consecutive Champions League defeat for the first time since 1986 but the under-fire boss remains convinced he is the right man for the job in the Spanish capital.

"I see myself capable of fixing this, that's what I'm going to try," Zidane, whose Madrid were eliminated in the Champions League last 16 in 2019-20, said in his post-match interview. "And the players are going to try, too.

"We are going to look for the solution and we're going to find it. Now we have to prepare for Saturday's game [away to Barcelona]."

Out-of-favour forward Luka Jovic – who lasted 59 minutes before being replaced by Vinicius – spearheaded Madrid's attack with Karim Benzema on the bench, while Eder Militao partnered Raphael Varane in the absence of superstar captain Sergio Ramos.

Shakhtar were missing 10 first-team players due to coronavirus but the Ukrainian visitors blew Madrid away in the first half at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, where strikes from Mateus Tete and Manor Solomon sandwiched a Varane own goal.

"It's a bad feeling [that we have after this result], of course," Zidane said after Madrid lost their opening Champions League game at home for the first time ever. "It ended up being a mix of everything. We made a mistake leading up to the first goal and afterwards the truth is that we were missing a bit of confidence, a bit of action, a bit of everything in the first half.

"I am happy for the players who reacted and changed in the second half, because they don't deserve such things. It was a bad game, a bad night. I'm the coach, I'm the one who needs to find a solution, and I'm not going to find it tonight."

Zidane added: "I am responsible and since the first half was negative, I have not done something right. The first goal changed everything and [ultimately] cost us. But this [Champions League campaign] has just begun and we are not going to give up."

Luka Modric is confident Real Madrid will recover from a dreadful week after they suffered a second straight home defeat ahead of Saturday's Clasico at Barcelona.

LaLiga champions Madrid will head to Camp Nou at a low ebb after their 1-0 reverse at the hands of Cadiz was followed by a 3-2 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.

Zinedine Zidane's side were three goals down at half-time, before a sublime Modric strike sought to launch a comeback.

Vinicius Junior got another back, yet the Brazil winger was then in an offside position in front of the Shakhtar goalkeeper when Federico Valverde scored a stoppage-time equaliser that was struck off as a result.

Sergio Ramos was not involved and Karim Benzema started from the bench as Zidane turned one eye towards Barca, but Modric recognised Madrid were not good enough against a Ukrainian outfit missing 10 first-team players due to coronavirus.

"In the first half, we were not up to the competition," Modric said. "In the second, we tried to improve and we improved, but it was not enough to try to draw or win the game.

"We have to improve - this is obvious. We lacked confidence today in everything we did in the first half. But we have to continue.

"The next game is coming quickly and there is no time to complain. We have to do better in the next games.

"Zidane told us that we have to press more and better than in the first half, that we are together. I think that in the second half we have done it and we have scored two goals.

"It is a tough defeat but there is still a lot to do. I'm sure we'll improve.

"They scored the first goal and we lowered our heads and lost confidence. In general we are not happy but we are sure to go better.

"For the next game, we have to be together, trust in ourselves and in our quality. We have not forgotten how to play football.

"El Clasico is always a different game and we are sure we can be up to the task."

Real Madrid suffered a remarkable opening Champions League defeat as Shakhtar Donetsk, missing 10 first-team players due to coronavirus, held on for a 3-2 away win.

Wednesday's Group B clash seemed to be set up for a straightforward Madrid win, with Shakhtar clear underdogs even before losing half their squad to COVID-19 in a situation coach Luis Castro described as "a nightmare".

But Zinedine Zidane's LaLiga champions were outthought and outfought for 45 minutes at their temporary Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano home as strikes from Mateus Tete and Manor Solomon sandwiched a Raphael Varane own goal to secure a three-goal half-time lead.

Madrid also lost at home to Cadiz last Saturday and visit bitter rivals Barcelona in the Clasico this weekend yet at least showed some fight after the break.

Efforts from Luka Modric and Vinicius Junior set up a grandstand finish, but Federico Valverde's apparent equaliser in stoppage time was disallowed for offside as Shakhtar survived for a sensational victory.

Real Madrid conceded three goals in the first half of a Champions League match for the first time in over 15 years as they went 3-0 behind to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday.

Despite missing several first-team players due to positive coronavirus tests, Shakhtar ran riot in the opening half of the Group B clash in Madrid.

Their three goals came in the space of 13 minutes, with Tete sliding an assured finish into the bottom-left corner to break the deadlock just before the half-hour.

Raphael Varane scored an own goal four minutes later, with Manor Solomon then making it 3-0 from Tete's neat backheel.

It meant Madrid let in three first-half goals in the Champions League for the first time since September 2005, in a clash with Lyon.

Madrid had not conceded three in the first 45 minutes of a home match in the competition since February 2000, against Bayern Munich.

Luis Figo has called on "everyone" in football to oppose a potential European Premier League, saying the competition would "destroy football as we know it".

A Sky News report on Tuesday claimed Liverpool and Manchester United were among clubs in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain to hold talks over a breakaway competition.

Wall Street bank JP Morgan is said to have prepared a $6billion (£4.6bn/€5.1bn) funding package, while FIFA was reported to have given its support to the proposals.

The alleged plan follows failed attempts from the same two elite Premier League clubs to push through Project Big Picture, which would have secured increased voting rights on matters in England for 'big six' clubs.

As with Project Big Picture, though, the mooted European Premier League has been met with opposition.

Former Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter winger Figo, who briefly ran for FIFA presidency in 2015, has added his voice.

Responding to comments from ex-United captain Gary Neville, who described the idea as "another wound for football", Figo made his displeasure clear.

"What I read about this Super League idea will destroy football as we know it," said the 127-cap Portugal international, who retired at Inter in 2009.

"It's all about greed and keeping the game for a few elite clubs, while killing the other clubs and leagues that fans love.

"Football should unite! Everyone should oppose it!"

Figo's decision not to continue with his pursuit of the FIFA presidency five years ago came due to his refusal to "go along with" a process that delivers "absolute power to one man".

European football's governing body and Champions League organisers UEFA had opposed a potential "super league" on Tuesday, saying the competition would "inevitably become boring".

The existing Champions League structure is set to be revamped after the 2023-24 campaign, with plenty of posturing around the elite club game in Europe focused upon what shape this might take, although the backers of the European Premier League purportedly have ambitions to launch as early as 2022.

What does the future hold for Kylian Mbappe?

For so long, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has been tipped to join Real Madrid.

However, Mbappe is believed to be attracted to the idea of leaving Parc des Princes for Anfield.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE INTRIGUED BY LIVERPOOL

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe is interested in a move to Premier League champions Liverpool, according to Le Parisien.

Mbappe is contracted to PSG until 2022 but the France international forward has reportedly made it clear he has no plans to extend his deal in Paris.

He has long been linked with LaLiga champions Real Madrid, though the 21-year-old is attracted to Liverpool's style of play. Barcelona have also emerged as a possible destination.

 

ROUND-UP

Zinedine Zidane retains the backing of Madrid following last week's shock defeat to newly promoted Cadiz, says AS. Head coach Zidane has come in for criticism after Madrid's first loss of the season. While delivering LaLiga glory last term, Zidane is reportedly under pressure to succeed in the Champions League following their last-16 exit in 2019-20.

- The Daily Star says Arsenal outcast Mesut Ozil is wanted by MLS outfit DC United. Wayne Rooney previously played for DC between 2018 and 2020.

- Todofichajes claims PSG and United are interested in Inter midfielder Christian Eriksen, who has struggled to establish himself in Milan since arriving from Tottenham in January.

Tottenham are close to agreeing a contract extension with Spurs star Son Heung-min, reports The Athletic.

Holders Bayern Munich begin their Champions League defence with the visit of Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, in a game that will pit Robert Lewandowski against Luis Suarez.

Liverpool, winners in 2019, travel to Ajax, and Real Madrid host Shakhtar Donetsk, with two of the competition's most successful clubs hoping to avoid some worrying runs of defeats.

Antonio Conte's Inter tackle Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City host Porto, a team who boast a rather unfortunate record when it comes to games on English soil.

Here is some of the key Opta data from day two of matchday one.

Ajax v Liverpool: Can Firmino stop the rot?

This will be Liverpool's first meeting with Ajax since the 1966-67 European Cup, when the Dutch side prevailed 7-3 on aggregate in the last 16.

Liverpool's campaign last season ended at the same stage with back-to-back losses to Atletico Madrid. Should they lose in Amsterdam, it will be the first time since Brendan Rodgers was in charge in October to November 2014 that they have suffered three consecutive Champions League defeats.

Perhaps Roberto Firmino is the man to help them. He has been directly involved in 26 goals (15 scored, 11 assisted) in 33 Champions League matches; since his debut in 2017-18, the only other player with 10 or more goals and assists in that time is Kylian Mbappe (13 goals, 13 assists).

 

Bayern Munich v Atletico Madrid: Lewandowski has history in his sights

Bayern were the first team in history to win every game en route to lifting the trophy last season, and their 11-game winning run is already the longest ever in the competition.

Should Robert Lewandowski score, he will become the first player to do so in 10 Champions League group games in a row. He currently shares the record of nine with Cristiano Ronaldo, who did so from 2012 to 2014.

Atletico have only won twice in their previous 10 group games away from home, but Luis Suarez could give them the boost they need – he has scored five goals in his last five starts in the competition, as many as he managed in his previous 31 starts combined.

 

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Zidane puts 100 per cent record on the line

Real Madrid have been in the Champions League group stage 28 times and have never failed to reach the next round. Leeds United, who did so twice, are the only other team to feature in more than one group stage and boast a 100 per cent record.

That said, Madrid lost their final two games last season – both legs of the last-16 tie with Manchester City – and losing to Shakhtar Donetsk would put them on a three-match losing streak in the Champions League or European Cup for the first time since September 1986.

With captain Sergio Ramos injured, Zinedine Zidane will have concerns about his defence. At least the forward line is in capable hands: Karim Benzema has managed four goals and two assists across six consecutive home games in the competition, and Shakhtar have failed to keep a clean sheet in 22 Champions League matches in a row.

Manchester City v Porto: More English misery?

Porto have played 20 away games against English sides in Europe and have failed to win any. In fact, they have lost 17 of those games and have not scored in the previous seven. They do at least go into this contest off a run of just two defeats in 16 Champions League group-stage matches.

City have a pretty strong recent record in the group stage, having gone unbeaten in 11 games since a surprise 2-1 loss to Lyon in September 2018. They also have Raheem Sterling in sharp form: the forward has scored 20 goals in the competition since his debut for City in September 2015, a tally only Harry Kane can match among English players in that time.

 

Other fixtures:

Inter v Borussia Monchengladbach:

9 – Romelu Lukaku has scored nine goals in 11 appearances in European competition for Inter. Since the start of last season, only Robert Lewandowski (15) and Erling Haaland (10) have netted more across the Champions League and Europa League.

8 – Strike partner Lautaro Martinez has scored five in six Champions League starts and eight in 14 in Europe overall for the Nerazzurri.

 

Salzburg v Lokomotiv Moscow:

10 – Since September 2018, Lokomotiv Moscow have lost 10 Champions League games, more than any other club in that time.

16 – Salzburg scored 16 group-stage goals last season but finished third in their group. The only other team to score that many and get knocked out were Chelsea in 2012-13.

 

Midtjylland v Atalanta:

16 – Atalanta have scored at least once in 16 of their previous 17 European games, including nine in three matches in last season's knockouts. Josip Ilicic has nine goals in 13 European appearances for the club.

18 – Midtjylland conceded 18 goals in eight matches in the 2015-16 Europa League, their previous involvement in Europe. No team conceded more that season.

 

Olympiacos v Marseille:

3 – This will be Andre Villas-Boas' first Champions League game since March 2016. He has lost his most recent three matches in the competition.

41 – Steve Mandanda has made 41 appearances in the competition, the most for any Marseille player in history. The goalkeeper accounts for 37 per cent of the total games played by current Marseille players in this tournament.

Sergio Ramos has been omitted from Real Madrid's squad for their opening Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk. 

Madrid's captain was a fitness doubt for the match at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano after picking up a knock to his knee in the disappointing 1-0 defeat to Cadiz on Saturday. 

Ramos did not train with his team-mates on Tuesday, so it was no surprise to see him absent from a 19-man squad ahead of Wednesday's fixture in the group stage of the competition. 

Head coach Zinedine Zidane had been non-committal on Ramos' involvement when asked about his skipper at a pre-match news conference on Tuesday, prior to the squad announcement. 

"There's an issue with Sergio Ramos, he hasn't trained with the team," Zidane said. 

"We won't take any risks with the players; the players have to be fit. He's got a knock, we have to wait and see how he feels, it's true today he didn't train at the same tempo as his team-mates."

It remains to be seen if Ramos will be fit enough for Saturday's first Clasico clash of the season against Barcelona, which takes place at Camp Nou.

As well as Madrid and Shakhtar, Inter and Borussia Monchengladbach are the other teams to make up Group B.

Sergio Ramos faces a battle to be fit for Real Madrid's Champions League opener against Shakhtar Donetsk with head coach Zinedine Zidane set to make a call on his availability on Wednesday.

Los Blancos captain Ramos took a knock to his knee in Saturday's shock 1-0 LaLiga loss to Cadiz and was absent from Tuesday's training session ahead of the fixture at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

With the first Clasico of the campaign against Barcelona taking place this weekend Zidane is unlikely to risk exacerbating the issue and the Frenchman plans to see how his skipper is on game day.

"There's an issue with Sergio Ramos, he hasn't trained with the team," Zidane told a pre-match news conference on Tuesday.

"We won't take any risks with the players; the players have to be fit. He's got a knock, we have to wait and see how he feels, it's true today he didn't train at the same tempo as his team-mates."

While Ramos is a fresh injury concern, forward Eden Hazard – whose time at Madrid has been blighted by fitness woes – remains a longer-term absentee.

The Belgium international, who is yet to feature this campaign, was set to return to action last month but sustained a muscle complaint during his recovery from an ankle injury.

Offering an update on Hazard, Zidane said: "Eden has been back out on the training pitch but that injury was a bit more than we hoped.

"He's in good hands and hopefully shortly he'll be back and he'll back to stay fit and hopefully he'll be able to play for the full season without further setbacks."

Hazard may be low on luck, but his Belgium team-mate Thibaut Courtois has been in sensational form for Madrid.

Of the previous 43 shots on target he has faced in LaLiga, Courtois has saved 38 and his stats for his season show he has kept out 16 of the 19 efforts on target.

Asked to explain Courtois' performances, Zidane said: "I think Thibaut Courtois has always proven his worth. He's a great goalkeeper.

"I think he just needed some time to adapt to the demands of playing for such a big club. No one ever doubted his talent.

"We see he's improving every day, it's great for the team, great for Thibaut. If everyone can play at 100 per cent, we'll be a tough side to beat. That is our objective: to play at 100 per cent every game."

Madrid were well below their best against Cadiz, mustering just two shots on target despite having almost 75 per cent of the possession.

Zidane's side have scored just six goals in five LaLiga games but the coach, while accepting his team deserved the criticism that came their way, said there will be plenty of peaks and troughs in a busy campaign.

"I think we deserved the criticism as published following that defeat, but now it's our opportunity to turn the tide, turn that corner and hopefully you'll see a different Real Madrid," he said.

"I think whenever things have been tough, this team have stepped up and produced the goods. There are moments during the season when there are dips in form.

"The other day we could have done things better and I'm convinced we can do things better.

"I think you have to look at the bigger picture. If you look at not just us, others too, no clubs have started in brilliant fashion, teams have struggled. There will be days when we do things very, very well."

Thibaut Courtois believes Real Madrid still have the quality to win the Champions League.

Los Blancos have won the competition 13 times but an underwhelming start to the LaLiga season has hardly served to inspire confidence they can claim a 14th title in 2020-21.

Madrid are third in LaLiga, a point behind early leaders Real Sociedad having slumped to a 1-0 home loss to newly promoted Cadiz last time out.

Zinedine Zidane's side failed to reach the quarter-finals last season, losing in a two-legged last-16 tie to Manchester City with a five-month interval between the games due to the suspension of football amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Drawn in Group B with Inter, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk, history is firmly on the side of Madrid progressing to the knockout stages.

Madrid have made it through all 28 of their Champions League group stages and Courtois has every confidence in their ability to go all the way once more.

"I'm sure we can win this Champions League," Courtois said ahead of Wednesday's meeting with Shakhtar. 

"Real Madrid are always favourites in this competition. I'm pretty sure, I'm confident we have enough quality in the team to win this title.

"I mean we're not the number one favourites, there are many teams in the hat but we're definitely a candidate for the title.

"Juve, Bayern, Barca, there are a lot of good clubs, it's the most attractive competition in the world and we're going to do all we can to win the title."

Madrid will be heavy favourites to beat Shakhtar having won each of their meetings with the Ukrainian side in the 2015-16 group stage.

However, Shakhtar are unbeaten in their last three Champions League away games under coach Luis Castro.

Courtois has been in sensational form for Madrid. Of the previous 43 shots on target he has faced in LaLiga, Courtois has saved 38 and his stats for his season show he has kept out 16 of the 19 efforts on target.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a "machine of sacrifice" who should never have been allowed to leave Real Madrid, according to Shakhtar Donetsk head coach Luis Castro.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored a club-record 450 goals for Madrid and won five trophies during his nine years in the Spanish capital.

He left for Juventus in a mega-money deal in July 2018 and has maintained his impressive form with 68 goals in all competitions, helping his side to successive Serie A titles.

That includes a return of a combined 69 goals and assists in the Italian top flight since the start of 2018-19 – two more than next best Ciro Immobile at Lazio.

Ahead of Shakhtar's Champions League Group B opener with Madrid on Wednesday, Castro has questioned the LaLiga giants' decision to let the superstar forward depart.

"When you have Cristiano on your team you should never let him go. Never," he told Marca.  

"We are talking about the best, the most effective footballer in the world, a machine, a machine of sacrifice."

Ronaldo was crowned the world's best player five times at Madrid and once during his spell with Manchester United, where he spent six seasons after joining from Sporting CP. 

And Castro argued the Portugal international has done enough throughout his career to rightly be considered the greatest player to have ever played the game.

"I do not like to compare. But yes, for me he is the best," Castro said. "Cristiano has a story behind him that is exemplary. 

"He moved at just 11 years of age to Lisbon to be a footballer, leaving his home. Cristiano is someone that has risen alone, with a unique determination.

"For me he is an example for all children. People criticise Ronaldo too much. 'What if he does this, what if he spends so much money on this or the other?'.

"Yet he responds on the field every game, being aware of where he comes from. 

"The day they make a Cristiano movie and people see where he really comes from, how he became a footballer, he will be valued much more."

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