Vinicius Junior earned a recall to the Brazil squad on Friday as head coach Tite explained his intention to rotate his less experienced players. 

After being left out of the team for the opening games of Brazil's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in October, Vinicius returned at the expense of Real Madrid team-mate Rodrygo. 

Bruno Guimaraes made way for Arthur, while Rodrigo Caio held onto his spot in the group and Felipe was dropped for Eder Militao, who only made his first appearance of the season for Madrid last weekend. 

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus were included as expected after missing last month's matches through injury, with Santos and Matheus Cunha consequently left out. 

"For the young players it's a matter of process, of maturity in their clubs. [Their selection depends on] the best moment, the degree of confidence they have," said Tite. 

"For this reason, I'll sometimes use Vinicius, Rodrygo, Bruno Guimaraes... 

"[Vinicius] is a player that offers width, goes one on one, has extraordinary physical attributes. Say a normal car has five gears – he has six or seven." 

Brazil sit top of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying section after wins over Bolivia and Peru in their opening fixtures.

The Selecao are scheduled to entertain Venezuela and travel to Uruguay during the next international break in November.
 

Brazil squad: 

Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Weverton (Palmeiras); Alex Telles (Manchester United), Danilo (Juventus), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Gabriel Menino (Palmeiras), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Renan Lodi (Atletico Madrid), Rodrigo Caio (Flamengo), Thiago Silva (Chelsea); Arthur (Juventus), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa), Everton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Fabinho (Liverpool), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona); Everton (Benfica), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Richarlison (Everton), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid). 

Pep Guardiola believes Ronald Koeman "needs a little more time" to get Barcelona playing the way he wants as the first Clasico of the season looms this weekend.

There was a time when Guardiola and Koeman were team-mates and room-mates for away trips with Barcelona, going their separate ways in 1995 when Koeman left for Feyenoord,

They are said to have remained close and Guardiola wants Koeman to turn Barcelona back into a winning machine in Spain after the turbulence of the 2019-20 season.

On Saturday, Koeman will take charge of his first Clasico as a head coach, making him the seventh Dutch boss to lead Barcelona into the prestigious LaLiga fixture.

Of those six Dutchmen who have preceded him, only Louis van Gaal was able to win his first Clasico - a 3-2 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu in 1997, for which captain Guardiola was absent through injury.

An early season stumble from Barcelona has seen them fail to win either of their last two LaLiga games, drawing 1-1 with Sevilla before losing 1-0 to Getafe last weekend.

Yet Guardiola, who coached Barcelona to 14 trophies in four years from 2008 to 2012, believes the circumstances are so abnormal this season, with last term having been heavily disrupted and the close season cut short, that any new boss would deserve time to implement his plans.

"Sometimes you need a little bit of time to get everything," Guardiola said. "Especially with Barcelona with Ronald, that being new he needs a little bit more time.

"But I'm pretty sure they will get it to where they want."

Guardiola does not expect to catch Saturday's match, given it clashes with his Manchester City team's return from their lunchtime trip to face West Ham in London.

"At 3pm we are flying back to Manchester!" Guardiola said.

The last time Barcelona went three LaLiga games without a win was early in the 2018-19 season under the leadership of Ernesto Valverde.

They will be taking on a Madrid side who are going through their own problems, having lost to Cadiz in LaLiga last weekend before slumping to a 3-2 Champions League defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk.

"Normally at the beginning of the season the big clubs maybe struggle a little bit," Guardiola said.

"But they will get their own rhythm, their own path, and I think sooner or later, both teams will be winning games in a row, and they will be getting back in normal positions that every season they are in all competitions."

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman "respects" Gerard Pique's opinion and has backed the defender to do his talking on the pitch in Saturday's clash with Real Madrid.

La Vanguardia published an explosive interview with Pique on the eve of the first Clasico of the season in which the long-serving defender heavily criticised his club.

The 33-year-old hit out at president Josep Maria Bartomeu in particular over his handling of Lionel Messi's contract saga and admitted Barca have gone backwards since 2015.

Pique did reserve some praise for new boss Koeman, however, and the Dutchman insisted he has no problem with the timing of the interview.

"He has been here for many years and I have been here for three months," Koeman said at a pre-match news conference on Friday ahead of the Camp Nou meeting with Madrid.

"He has his opinion and I respect it. He's smart and knows that if he does an interview of this type, tomorrow he will be ready and play well. I respect all opinions if he is involved."

Pique has been named in a 23-man squad that also includes the returning Jordi Alba and misfiring forward Antoine Griezmann, whose role in the side has been questioned.

Griezmann has yet to score, assist or create a single chance for one of his team-mates in LaLiga this term from four starts, but Koeman is expected to stick with the Frenchman.

"Like anyone he is available to play," Koeman said. "It is not good to discuss his role ahead of every game. We have many more players and want everyone at their best level.

"The team is always the most important thing and we choose the best players for each match."

Griezmann's poor return is in stark contrast to Ansu Fati, the teenage attacker having scored four goals in five appearances this term - more than any other Barca player.

Fellow youngster Vinicius Junior has also been in good form, scoring in three of his last four appearances, and Koeman can see both players getting better over time.

"We know that they are two very good players despite their age," he said. 

"They are learning many things and their trajectory is going very fast. For me the age of the player is not important - what matters to me is their performance.

"Ansu Fati will be a star in the future, but he must work and develop. We will support him to be one of the best in the world, and we will do the same with the other youngsters."

Barca, who like Madrid suffered a surprise defeat in their last league outing, are seeking a first Clasico win in three attempts.

The Catalan giants have failed to score in the last two Clasicos and Koeman acknowledged the importance of picking up a positive result this weekend to rebuild confidence.

"It is important, of course," he said. "The players deserve it for the work they are doing every day. They show a lot of ambition and have started playing in another system. 

"They have shown ambition and hunger. A game against Madrid is always something a bit more. If you win a match, everything is easier."

Real Madrid's chances of El Clasico success will be heavily influenced by whether captain Sergio Ramos plays, according to Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman.

The first Clasico of the season takes place at Camp Nou on Saturday with the two teams not in vintage form.

Madrid have suffered back-to-back losses against Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk, piling the pressure on coach Zinedine Zidane.

Barca, meanwhile, lost at Getafe in their previous LaLiga outing and continue to deal with off-field turbulence after the Lionel Messi saga in the transfer window and a debate over wages with the club's players.

Ramos suffered a knee injury in the Cadiz defeat and Madrid struggled without him in Wednesday's 3-2 home Champions League loss to Shakhtar.

Koeman is expecting a more compact Madrid regardless of whether Ramos - who is set to return to the squad - is fit to play from the start, but acknowledges the Spain international will have a big impact if available.

"I am sure they are not going to leave the spaces they have left in recent games," Koeman said at his pre-match news conference.

"We are going to expect a more compact Madrid, with fewer spaces and, for them, it is important that Ramos is there.

"He is one of the best centre-backs and has a great personality on the pitch. Ramos can influence Madrid on Saturday."

Facing an out-of-sorts Madrid will boost Koeman, given Barca have failed to score in their last two league Clasicos. A failure to net again would equal their worst-ever run, previously recorded in 1958.

Asked about Madrid's struggles, Koeman added: "First, we have to prepare ourselves. They have quality on the ball.

"Like any team and coach, when you make mistakes you want to improve.

"But neither they nor we will be lacking in motivation. Their players have experience at a high level. I don't expect a vulnerable Madrid, on the contrary."

Jordi Alba is back in Barca's matchday squad after suffering a thigh injury against Sevilla on October 4.

Asked if the defender can start, Koeman said: "The player always has the last word. He knows if he is fit to play or not.

"I also have to speak to the medical team so we are going to wait.

"I see everything very positively but you have to wait if there is a reaction [in training]. Yes or no. If not, he has a good chance of playing."

The Clasico will also see Lionel Messi look to end his second-longest goalscoring drought in the fixture. He has not netted in 425 minutes of Clasico action, with his last 16 shots against Madrid not being converted.

Messi is, however, the top scorer in Clasico history with 26 goals and also has the most goals in Clasico league meetings at Camp Nou (seven).

Zinedine Zidane insists he is not feeling the pressure of the sack as the Real Madrid coach welcomes back Sergio Ramos for Saturday's Clasico.

Back-to-back home defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk have left Zidane's position under scrutiny and a loss to Barcelona at Camp Nou would only amplify concerns that the team are stagnating.

The 3-2 loss to Shakhtar was particularly chastening, as Madrid fell 3-0 down in the first half to a team missing 10 key first-team players due to an outbreak of coronavirus, marking the first time they let in three goals in the first 45 minutes of a Champions League match in 15 years.

Ramos missed that match through injury but is expected at least to be in the squad this weekend, although Zidane warned he wanted his captain to be at "100 per cent".

Zidane has only lost twice in nine games against Barca as Madrid boss and his side have not conceded a goal in the previous two, with a goalless draw and a 2-0 win in last season's meetings helping Madrid go on to win the LaLiga title.

But with only three wins in all competitions since July 16, doubts have been growing over Zidane's long-term suitability in his second stint in the job, and some reports in Spain suggest Mauricio Pochettino has already been contacted over the prospect of taking charge.

Zidane, though, insists he feels the support of everyone at the club, saying: "Yes, [I feel it from] all of them. Ultimately, I've won many things with these players; they have made me win a lot of things. I will be with these players to the death. They are the ones who fight and run.

"I can see the support, yes. But, for now, what's important for us is to change the mindset. Games are coming for us to change things. Football is beautiful for that. When things get worse, you have to bring out your character and quality."

When asked if his future is at stake, he replied: "That's what is said. Nothing at all has changed. It was the same last year, the same in my first period. It doesn't change.

"What I have to do is my job, give 100 per cent as always and, to the rest, nothing.

"We look at the games. We started badly in the sense that, when they scored, it was tough for us to lift our heads.

"That's football. There are high and low moments and you have to accept them. You have to forget what happened the other day.

"I don't like being a victim or anything. It's a game and each one has its story, and that's the good thing about football. You can go through bad moments and the good thing is you can take that and come back to change the situation.

"I've always been critical of myself. It's the engine to improve. After a defeat, as coach, most of the criticism is for me. And that's normal. But I don't live in the past; I'm interested in what lies ahead."

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.

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