Real Madrid playmaker Isco has been unfortunate to miss out on a place in the side, according to Carlo Ancelotti.

Isco, who was signed during Ancelotti's first stint as Madrid coach in 2013, has made just seven appearances under the Italian this season, totalling just 176 minutes.

The midfielder has struggled with fitness in recent seasons and was out of favour under previous boss Zinedine Zidane.

Once an integral part of Madrid's system, Isco has started only nine times in all competitions across the entirety of 2021, making 25 appearances in total, scoring one goal and providing only one assist, having created 22 chances for team-mates.

With Ancelotti persisting with a 4-3-3 formation, down in large part to the superb form of Vinicius Junior on the left flank, Isco has found opportunities hard to come by and has not played since featuring against Granada on November 21. He last started a match in August.

Reports on Monday suggested Isco had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing his 2021 to an end prior to Wednesday's meeting with Athletic Bilbao.

Though Ancelotti did not confirm if these reports were accurate, he did say Isco would not play against Athletic. However, he does not believe the Spain international's chances of regaining his place in Madrid's starting XI are over.

"It is a complicated issue to describe exactly what has happened," Ancelotti told a news conference.

"He hasn't yet had the opportunity to show how good he is, because the team started playing much better. It coincided with Isco not being in the team then, so it's been difficult to get back in the team.

 

"Nacho is another player [like this], [Federico] Valverde, [Eduardo] Camavinga, Marcelo. These are players who haven't had much playing time because the players playing now are playing really well.

"They've not had the opportunity to show how good they really are. But Isco and the other players I've named are happy carrying themselves in a professional manner, there are no issues, I am not unhappy with any of these players.

"They've accepted that the team are doing really well, and they continue to train and work hard and are waiting for their opportunity.

"Right now, unfortunately, Isco isn't available, because he could have played on Wednesday."

Another player who has been in and out of the team is Eden Hazard. The Belgium forward made his first LaLiga start since September as Madrid drew 0-0 with Cadiz last time out, despite having 36 attempts (the most of any team without scoring since at least 2003-04).

Asked if Hazard could handle the short turnaround, Ancelotti replied: "I have to evaluate the recovery of the player. Yesterday was fine.

"He has done a recovery session like the others, he trains today and then we will evaluate him. It is clear that he is not a winger who plays on the outside, as Vinicius can be, but that he likes the left wing or behind the striker. 

"It is an option that we have, because what I want is for the player to be comfortable in the position he plays."

Ancelotti will be without Luka Modric on Wednesday, with the midfielder still not back in training after contracting coronavirus.

Carlo Ancelotti insisted nobody should be blamed after Real Madrid's disappointing 0-0 draw at home to struggling Cadiz, applauding the performance even if the outcome was not as expected.

Madrid had been hoping to extend their winning run to eight league matches but failed to convert their superiority into goals at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Los Blancos' 36 shots amounted to 10 more than any other team have had in a single LaLiga match this season and the most since Madrid themselves had 37 attempts against Levante in April 2013.

Those shots equated to 2.8 expected goals (xG), meaning it was only the fourth time in the past decade that Madrid have failed to score in a LaLiga game despite registering at least 2.8 xG.

Cadiz defended valiantly, their 14 blocks being the most any team has recorded in a game since Opta began collecting this data (2005-06), somehow managing to leave the Santiago Bernabeu with at least a point for the second season in a row.

 

Yet, as frustrating as it would have been for his team to fail to beat 19th-placed Cadiz, Ancelotti looked on the bright side.

Speaking to Movistar, Ancelotti said: "I think we've tried in every way, but it has not turned out well.

"It didn't work, but we tried, and therefore I don't have to blame [anyone]. There are many positive things, the only thing that wasn't positive was not having won the three points, but this is football.

"There are times you don't deserve it and you win, and others you deserve it and you don't win. They have played us with a set-up that always challenges us, but that's the way it is.

"In the first half what we didn't do well was breaking their back line, the intensity wasn't very high. The second half was different, we created a lot of opportunities.

"The ball didn't go in, but, personally, I'm happy. We tried, I don't know what more we could do. We could have had more quality in the final metres, but I am not going to ask my team for more."

 

Numerous Madrid players caught the eye but one of the most notable – even if he was not necessarily the standout star – was Eden Hazard.

The Belgian has been a massive disappointment since joining Madrid from Chelsea, with injuries playing a major role in disrupting him, but he looked bright at times on what was his first LaLiga start since September.

Hazard had three shots, his match-high 0.77 xG showing he was a threat, while he also played five key passes, the second most he has tallied in a league game for Madrid.

Ancelotti added: "It was difficult for him to get into the game, but in the second half he did very well with better combinations with the forwards.

"It is clear that Hazard can be one more weapon for us in the second half of the season."

 

Carlo Ancelotti says Barcelona "are not a direct rival" for Real Madrid at the moment, with the Blaugrana enduring a difficult season.

Los Blancos are eight points clear at the top of the table, having lost just once in La Liga this season against Espanyol on October 3.

Barca, meanwhile, are 18 points adrift of the leaders in eighth place and have won only six LaLiga games so far this term.

Madrid head coach Ancelotti feels that the likes of Sevilla and Real Betis, who are second and third respectively, pose a more immediate threat than the Catalan club.

"Now Barcelona is not a direct rival because we are closer [to] Sevilla, Atletico or Betis, but if I were Barcelona's coach I would say that we can't rule out LaLiga either," Ancelotti said to a news conference ahead of Los Blancos' league clash with Cadiz.

Ancelotti is without six players for Sunday's encounter due to COVID-19, with Marcelo, Luka Modric, Andriy Lunin, Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale and Rodrygo all unavailable, while Isco is a doubt.

The Italian gave fitness updates on the rest of the squad and was particularly optimistic about Eden Hazard's chances of playing a starring role.

"It is true that we have had setbacks but those who have tested positive are fine and the rest are ready to play tomorrow's game," Ancelotti continued.

"After the first positive tests, the [rest] all tested negative and we are determined to play. We have to live with it just as society is doing. This virus is less strong than before and we have to keep in mind that we have to take care of ourselves and follow all precautions.

"Hazard starts tomorrow. He wants motivation and he's going to play because he trained well and deserves it. He is always well. The problem is that he has not always been able to train 100 per cent and I think that tomorrow he will play a good game.

"Hazard is prepared. It is clear that in the first part of the season he had the competition of [Karim] Benzema and Vinicius [Junior] and now he can have a very, very good second part of the season.

"Benzema has trained very well. He is very well and will play. Modric has tested negative but remains confined. He is tired and has had a fever so he will not be there tomorrow. Then we have to assess what the regulations say."

Carlo Ancelotti believes Real Madrid are "clear favourites" for the LaLiga title after their convincing 2-0 El Derbi win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday.

LaLiga leaders Madrid moved 13 points clear of fourth-placed Atleti as goals from Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio stretched their unbeaten league run over their city rivals to 11 games.

It was Madrid's seventh consecutive top-flight win and lifted them seven points clear of Sevilla, although Unai Emery's team do have a game in hand.

Asked about his impact on his team's fine run, Ancelotti told a media conference: "I don't think it's the Ancelotti effect; I have a team that leaves me calm because of what they do on the field.

"They handle the game very well and they have defensive commitment. It's a team, not just high-quality players, and that's the difference.

"We are clear favourites [for the title] because we have done very well, better than others, but we are focused on the next matches because a mental downturn can cost us dearly. This is the only way to get closer to winning.

"Of the team I really like the defensive aspect; it is the one that we have improved the most since the beginning of the season.

"We are more solid. Although the pressure is not too high, with a lower block we use the forwards for the counter-attacks."

Ancelotti was fulsome in his praise of Luka Modric after another supreme display from the veteran midfielder.  

The Croatia international made a joint-team high three interceptions and completed 90.1 per cent of his passes, with his all-round display leaving his boss purring.

"I have congratulated him on the game because he was incredible," Ancelotti added.

"I don't know what I said, but he was spectacular with and without the ball. It was extraordinary. 

"He had a spectacular game, with personality and character. He is an extraordinary player."

 

Both of Madrid's goals were created by Vinicius Junior, with the Brazil international becoming the first player to provide two assists in a LaLiga clash between Madrid and Atleti in the 21st century.

"He is improving himself," Ancelotti explained. "I don't talk to him much because I don't have much to say to him; he just needs to make it effective. 

"I tell him he doesn't have to dribble to do it. You have to do something to help the team and he has made two assists that have helped us win the game."

Carlo Ancelotti sees no need to assess the impact Diego Simeone has had at Atletico Madrid and can only hope to replicate the Argentine's longevity.

Ancelotti returned to Madrid for his second spell as coach in June, after leaving Everton.

He has overseen something of a resurgence after a disappointing campaign last season, with Los Blancos sitting pretty at the top of LaLiga with 39 points from their 16 games.

Reigning champions Atleti visit Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday for the first Madrid derby of the season. Simeone's men sit 10 points behind Ancelotti's side in fourth place, albeit with a game in hand.

Ancelotti and Simeone have met 15 times previously across all competitions. The Italian has managed five wins to Simeone's four, while six of the encounters were drawn.

However, none of Ancelotti's victories have come in LaLiga, with Simeone's Atleti winning three times out of four – the other game resulting in a draw.

 

Indeed, Simeone is the only coach that Ancelotti has faced on four or more occasions in LaLiga without winning, though he did enjoy a famous win over Atleti in the 2014 Champions League final, as Madrid clinched "La Decima".

"I am not the one who has to say what Simeone has done at Atletico," Ancelotti told a news conference on Saturday.

"He has put Atleti among the best clubs in Europe. What has happened with Simeone is what all the coaches want, to stay in a club for a long time and leave their mark on the club.

"It is the dream of any coach. Hopefully it can happen to me at Madrid."

If Ancelotti really does wish to stay for a sustained spell at Madrid, then he is off to a strong start – Los Blancos have lost just one league game this term and have finished top of their Champions League group – although the 62-year-old has not spent longer than two years at any club since leaving Milan in 2009.

Ancelotti has managed in most of Europe's biggest rival matches, from the Merseyside and Milan derbies to Der Klassiker and El Clasico, but he insists Madrid must keep a lid on their emotions on Sunday in order to claim the points.

"It is three points. Then the emotional aspect, which is playing a derby against a direct rival," he added.

"It is clear that this is going to put more pressure on both teams. It is a game that all the fans feel in a particular way, but in the table there are three points [on offer]."

Asked if a victory would put Madrid well in control of the title race, Ancelotti replied: "We will have three more points over an opponent who will fight to the end to win this competition. 

"I don't want to put more pressure on this game than it already is.

"We have shown that we have done better than the other teams to date. But the league does not end today, we have to play for six more months and I don't know what can happen. So far we have done better, but we are concerned about the future, not the past."

Ancelotti did not win LaLiga during his first stint at Madrid, and conceded he has unfinished business in that regard.

"I would value it like the other titles we have won," he said.

"The Champions League is the most important competition in Europe and the world. LaLiga is also an important title and it is true that not having won it here gives me more motivation."

Carlo Ancelotti is not getting carried away over Real Madrid's Champions League prospects despite Tuesday's 2-0 win at home to Inter sealing top spot in Group D.

Madrid just needed to avoid a defeat to go through to the knockout phase as group winners, but they ultimately battled to a commendable victory over the Italian champions.

Toni Kroos netted a glorious first-half opener, before a similarly satisfying Marco Asensio curler wrapped up the win 11 minutes from time.

As such, Madrid will – theoretically – get a kinder draw than runners-up Inter in the last 16, potentially setting them up nicely to reach the quarter-finals.

Los Blancos went as far as the last four in 2020-21 following back-to-back round-of-16 eliminations, though Ancelotti is not making any sweeping statements regarding their chances of going deeper into the competition this time around.

He told reporters: "We have the quality to win LaLiga and the quality to compete in the Champions League.

"There are no teams with the quality [guaranteed] to win the Champions League, just to compete.

"There are more intense teams, others with more quality. We are not an intense team in the defensive aspect, but we have a lot of quality, a lot of experience and a lot of commitment."

Luka Modric made his 100th Champions League appearance on Tuesday, becoming only the ninth player to reach that landmark while at Madrid. Eight of those games came during his time at Tottenham.

Modric turned in a typically controlling display and completed the full 90 minutes, which was somewhat surprising given the important nature of Sunday's clash with Atletico Madrid.

There had been calls prior to the weekend win over Real Sociedad for Ancelotti to rotate his midfield more, yet Modric is heading into the derby having played 90 minutes both against La Real and Inter.

The Croatian is not concerned, however.

"I feel very good," the 36-year-old told Movistar. "I think you don't have to look at the years, you have to look at what you do on the field. The years are less and less noticeable because players' careers are prolonged.

"I feel very good, and I feel like I am younger than 30!"

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti insisted he does not "have to prove anything to anyone" as his side prepare to host Inter.

Madrid hold an eight-point advantage at the top of LaLiga, while they have already qualified through Group D in the Champions League.

The two top sides meet on Tuesday, with Ancelotti's team boasting a two-point lead over Inter, who have not defeated Spanish opposition in Europe since October 2004.

Madrid have also won their last three games in the Champions League against the Serie A outfit, though the pre-match focus was on the latter stages of the continental competition as the Spanish giants look for an unprecedented 14th title.

"I don't have to prove anything to anyone," Ancelotti responded to reporters at Monday's pre-match news conference.

"I have a very young coaching staff and also young footballers with a lot of enthusiasm and desire to learn. With this coaching staff, I feel very good because we can combine their enthusiasm and my experience well.

"I can't say if Madrid is the favourite or not to win the Champions League, but we can compete against any team. If you want to win this competition, you have to face the best. If you have the goal of reaching the final, you will have to beat strong teams.

"In the second year of my first stage, we were very close to success. The period between January and February did not go well, we suffered important injuries like [Luka] Modric's. But each year has its history and you cannot compare that with the current one.

"The history and tradition of this club, which is the best in the world, involves a requirement. When we won La Decima we enjoyed it and celebrated it, but we had to move on. This is what this club and this fans are asking for."

Inter head to the Spanish capital after a dominant 3-0 win over Jose Mourinho's Roma moved them within a point of leaders Milan in the league.

Simone Inzaghi's side also know a win will ensure top spot in Group D but Inter have not defeated Madrid away from home in European competition since March 1967.

Ancelotti, though, is expecting a great battle with the Nerazzurri, who have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign.

"It is a prestigious game for us," he added. "We play against a team that is doing very well, playing football well. 

"We play [for] first place and that is important. And we play in our stadium in front of our fans. It will be an interesting match."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti insisted there is still a long way to go in the LaLiga title race after Los Blancos moved eight points clear ahead of next week's derby.

Vinicius Junior and Luka Jovic scored in the second half as leaders Madrid defeated Real Sociedad 2-0 away from home on Saturday.

After defending champions Atletico Madrid were stunned 2-1 by Real Mallorca earlier on Saturday, Ancelotti's men are now 10 points above their city rivals heading into the December 12 derby.

However, Ancelotti knows there is still plenty to play for after 16 rounds, with Atletico boasting a game in hand, while Sevilla – who have also played a match less – sit second in the standings.

"I think it was just a good day for us," Ancelotti told reporters. "The league continues and results have shown that we still know there are a lot of teams that are competing at a high level in this league, but they are very even matches, we're competing at a good level as well.

"Hopefully we can continue. And as for Karim [Benzema], he had a bit of pain early on in the game and he didn't want to aggravate any possible injury, so we opted to replace him. We'll see how he feels in the next few days, but I don't think he'll be able to play on Tuesday, but he could be fit for Sunday."

Pressed on people labelling Madrid champions already and whether it is exaggerated, Ancelotti replied: "Yes, because we are a team that's fighting for the league title and we are first.

"We're playing well, but it's far from over, and I do think we're playing well and we have another big exam in three days time. 

"So today's game is a good performance, but we have to work well in our next fixture. I'm thinking about our next game against Inter [in the Champions League]."

 

Madrid will welcome city rivals Atletico to the Santiago Bernabeu in their next league fixture and Ancelotti added: "We are confident because it's a special game as well, because a derby is always a special game, and in these kind of games there are no favourites.

"So we're going to show our quality against their quality. I think it's going to be a great game, a complicated game as well. And we'll see what happens."

Madrid are the first team from Europe's top five leagues to have two different players with 10 or more league goals this season – Karim Benzema 12 and Vinicius 10.

Vinicius scored the earliest second-half LaLiga goal (46:47) for Madrid away from home since December 2010, when Angel Di Maria netted at Real Zaragoza (46:36) thanks to an assist from Xabi Alonso, the current Real Sociedad B manager.

Meanwhile, Jovic – who replaced the injured Benzema – was also impressive after teeing up Vinicius' opener before scoring a goal of his own.

The last time Jovic had a goal and an assist in the same league game was for Eintracht Frankfurt against Hannover in the Bundesliga in February 2019.

It also meant the Serbia international forward scored and assisted in the same game for the first time in all competitions (41 appearances) and was involved in the same number of goals than in his previous 22 games (one goal and one assist in 462 minutes).

Madrid midfielder Luka Modric praised Jovic, saying: "He put in a very good performance. He provided an assist and scored after having gone a long time without playing. He showed that we can count on him. We're very pleased with his performance and his goal."

Karim Benzema is a doubt for Real Madrid's Champions League clash with Italian champions Inter on Tuesday but could be fit for their derby with Atletico Madrid.

The France striker limped out in the 17th minute of Madrid's 2-0 win over Real Sociedad on Saturday clutching his hamstring and grimacing before he was replaced by Luka Jovic.

When asked about the injury Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti suggested he would not be fit to face Inter at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid have already qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League but must avoid defeat to go through as winners of Group D.

That task will be made more difficult without Benzema who leads the goals (12) and assists (seven) charts in LaLiga and has scored five goals in the Champions League.

Ancelotti's side also host rivals and defending champions Atletico, who they have a 10-point advantage over, next weekend.

"The Benzema thing doesn't seem serious at all. But I don't think it will be available for Tuesday," Ancelotti told a media conference.

"Karim has had a problem, it bothered him a little and it don't I think it will be for Tuesday but maybe for Sunday, yes."

Benzema's replacement Jovic scored his first LaLiga goal of the season against Sociedad, and provided the assist for Vinicius Junior's opening goal.

It meant he scored and assisted in the same game for the first time in all competitions (41 appearances) and was involved in the same number of goals than in his previous 22 games (one goal and one assist in 462 minutes).

"For me, Jovic is a good striker," Ancelotti said.

"He is a very strong striker, he uses the ball very well. His first goal play is very much his style and I want to congratulate him. 

"Enjoy and take advantage of the opportunity. I congratulate him because he doesn't play a lot and he deserved to play. And there are others who deserve to play and this is my biggest problem."

Madrid defender Eder Militao made 10 clearances against Sociedad (nine headed clearances), the most by a player for Los Blancos in a match this season in all competitions.

Ancelotti hailed his partnership with David Alaba as one which brings the best out of both players.

"The quality of the two is extraordinary," he said.

"They are different. Militao is very strong, incredible, and Alaba adapts very well. They understand each other very well and complement each other very well."

Vinicius Junior capped a dazzling display with a goal as Real Madrid claimed a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad to restore their eight-point cushion at the top of LaLiga.

Brazil forward Vinicius opening the scoring two minutes after half-time following a fine piece of individual skill and some neat interplay with Luka Jovic.

It made the 21-year-old the first player born in 2000 or later to reach double figures for goals in a single LaLiga season.

Jovic added a second with his first goal of the season when he bravely headed in from close range. Madrid are comfortably ahead of second-placed Sevilla and have a 10-point advantage over defending champions Atletico Madrid who are down in fourth.

Sociedad began with intent, although Madrid had the best early chance when Vinicius saw his shot from the edge of the box saved by Alex Remiro.

Shortly afterwards Alexander Isak got his head on the end of Diego Rico's teasing delivery but Eder Militao was well positioned to clear the danger.

Madrid were dealt a blow in the 17th minute when striker and captain Karim Benzema limped out clutching his hamstring and was replaced by Jovic.

Isak fired wide from a good position before the break while the lively Vinicius and Rodrygo were both kept at bay by Sociedad goalkeeper Remiro.

Vinicius looked Madrid's most likely source of a goal and delivered moments after half-time when he jinked in from the left flank, exchanged passes with Jovic, and struck a low shot into the left corner.

Jovic reacted quickest to nod in Casemiro's knockdown in the box from a Toni Kroos corner 10 minutes later to increase Madrid's advantage.

Sociedad found it difficult to break down Carlo Ancelotti's side in the remainder of the game as Madrid chalked up their seventh league away win of the season.

Carlo Ancelotti says "children have to pursue the dreams they have" when asked about a comic book detailing Kylian Mbappe's love of Real Madrid in his teenage years.

In the autobiographical comic, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Mbappe recalls a visit to Los Blancos' Valdebebas training ground as a 14-year-old where he met his heroes Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The publishing of the story has only exacerbated rumours Mbappe will make the move to the Spanish capital, having been the subject of an unsuccessful deadline-day bid in the previous transfer window.

Mbappe is out of contract at the end of the season and has been largely tipped with signing a pre-contract agreement with Madrid, who are top of LaLiga.

Asked about Mbappe and the comic, Ancelotti replied: "Children have to pursue the dreams they have. 

"As a child I had the dream of playing in Serie A and I fulfilled it."

However, when asked which player he would like to be if he were to have a do-over in his playing career, Ancelotti name-checked another superstar striker in the form of Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland among his list.

"I would like to be a forward. Vinicius [Junior], [Karim] Benzema or Haaland," he said.

"What I lacked in my career are the goals."

Madrid battled to a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday and face off against third-place Real Sociedad on Saturday.

As things stand, Ancelotti's side have a seven-point lead over rivals Atletico Madrid, who have played one game fewer.

The trip to San Sebastian begins a huge week that also sees Madrid face Inter in the Champions League and Atleti in LaLiga.

But Ancelotti says changes to his line-up will only be considered if players need a rest.

"We are not thinking about Inter and Atletico. I am going to put the best line-up to win the game against La Real," he added.

"Casemiro is going to play even though he has four yellow cards. We have no alarm, we are evaluating the squad. We have almost everyone. [Gareth] Bale has returned with the team, although he will not be in the squad. 

"Almost the entire squad is in good physical condition. I have looked a little at the statistics and only against Shakhtar [Donetsk] and Barca [did I] repeat the eleven."

Asked specifically whether his favoured midfield of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos can cope with playing in all the games, he replied: "I don't know if they can play the three games in a row. 

"I have to think first if they can play against La Real. I have to think about it. If Modric doesn't sleep well or feels tired, I won't put him in there."

Carlo Ancelotti was pleased with Real Madrid's ability to grind out a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao after acknowledging they were far from their best at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Karim Benzema, who also scored in the 2-1 win over Sevilla at the weekend, grabbed the only goal of the game in the 40th minute with his 12th strike of the LaLiga season.

The France international has now scored 35 goals in 46 games for Madrid across all competitions in 2021, equalling his best goalscoring tally in a single calendar year for Los Blancos (35 goals in 50 games in 2019).

The hosts had to work hard for a fifth consecutive LaLiga win, with the visitors taking 18 shots on Thibaut Courtois' goal.

Indeed, their expected goals against indicator of 2.7 was the highest Madrid have had in a match this season in all competitions.

"It is true that our opponents had more rest than us, and they are very good," Ancelotti told a media conference.

"In the first half, we did well. In the second we failed with more passes than in the first, and we suffered.

"The ability to suffer is a quality of the team. We know how to play football, and we know how to suffer when the football we want to play isn't happening.

"Real Madrid never give up. Our character and commitment is very strong. Sometimes when we can't use our quality, we are able to use other qualities.

"I liked the ending more than the first half – we were missing something then."

The result moved Madrid seven points clear of Atletico Madrid in second, although Diego Simeone's men have a game in hand.

Los Blancos are next in action on Saturday when they travel to third-placed Real Sociedad, and Ancelotti accepted he might be forced into making changes to his starting XI.

"The team has finished tired, and we will have to analyse it," he added.

"It is normal when you play against a fresher team that it costs you at the end a little. I must assess whether to make changes for the next game. We have three games very close [together], without time to rest.

"I have to think carefully about the decisions, but the streak is very good, and I am very satisfied with everyone: with those who play, those who play for five minutes, and those who do not have a minute.

"The atmosphere in the team is very good; I like it."

Liverpool have two reunions with fan favourites coming up in the space of 10 days.

While Steven Gerrard will bring his Aston Villa team to Anfield on December 11, Liverpool first make the short trip to Goodison Park to face the manager under which they enjoyed their best spell of the 21st century prior to Jurgen Klopp's arrival.

Rafael Benitez was a contentious appointment, to say the least, when he replaced Carlo Ancelotti at Everton.

After a strong start to his tenure at Goodison Park, a combination of injuries to key players and questionable tactical decisions have left Benitez under pressure.

Everton are on a seven-match winless run in the league, their worst run since 2016, and a streak of just one victory in 10 matches across all competition. 

It does not look pretty, the mood around each club could hardly be more different, and the last thing Benitez needs is a reunion with a fanbase that once idolised him and may well be singing his name again on Wednesday.

Where did it all go wrong?

Benitez has inherited a mess and Everton's director of football Marcel Brands and majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri must face scrutiny. The Spaniard, however, must ultimately shoulder part of the blame for the current malaise.

Of Everton's Premier League managers, only Howard Kendall (in his ill-fated third spell at the club) and Walter Smith took fewer points than Benitez's tally of 15 across their first 13 league games.

Everton went unbeaten in their three league derbies under Ancelotti, albeit they did suffer a 1-0 loss to very much a second-string Liverpool side in the FA Cup in January 2020.

However, Ancelotti oversaw Everton's first derby victory since October 2010 when the Toffees beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield in February, ending a winless run at that ground stretching back to September 1999.

That win at an empty Anfield inflicted a fourth successive home league defeat on Liverpool for the first time since 1923 and left the Merseyside rivals level in the race for Champions League qualification.

Since then, Everton have won just nine of their 27 Premier League outings, losing 11, with Liverpool winning 17 of 26, only suffering three defeats. The Reds have scored 62 goals, 36 more than their city rivals, while only Chelsea's defence is stingier of sides to have been in the top tier for the entirety of that timeframe.

If Evertonians hoped a corner had been turned in February, Klopp's team have proved they are still worlds apart.

Similar derby records... differing approaches

Speaking of Klopp, he has won seven Merseyside derbies since joining Liverpool in 2015, drawing five and suffering that solitary defeat. 

Benitez will be the sixth Everton boss Klopp has faced, and the German holds an impressive record over his Liverpool predecessor, winning four of seven meetings, losing just once, when Napoli beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the 2013-14 Champions League group stage.

Liverpool also won their last three league games against Benitez's Newcastle by an aggregate score of 9-2. 

This game will take Klopp onto the same amount of Merseyside derbies that Benitez managed as Liverpool boss. The former Real Madrid coach oversaw 14 meetings with David Moyes' Everton, winning eight and losing only three times. The Toffees' failures in this fixture have not been limited to the past decade.

Across the last seven matches, Benitez's team rank 17th for possession (39.5 per cent), joint-18th for shots on target (21) and joint-20th for goals (four), albeit they have underperformed their expected goals (xG) value (7.58) – the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin has not helped this.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have scored a league-leading 24 times in that time. Their xG of 16.4 also tops the competition, though it does suggest their finishing is above the standard that would be expected based on the quality of the chances.

Their high press has been back at its best, with no team producing more high turnovers (sequences that start in open play and begin 40 metres or less from the opponent's goal) than the Reds' 145. Everton's 78 ranks above only Watford (74) and Tottenham (72).

Another concern for Benitez will be Everton's tally of 101 high turnovers against. This ranks 11th in the league, but an issue for the Toffees all season has been an inability to keep the ball for sustained spells, even if it has been their aim to counter-attack. Their number of sequences of 10+ passes stands at 63 (16th). Liverpool's total is 220, placing them behind only Manchester City (283).

Everton had just 22.7 per cent of the ball in their recent 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, allowing 17 shots. It is hard to imagine Wednesday's statistics turning out much differently.

Injuries giving Toffees the blues

Mohamed Salah came seventh in the Ballon d'Or voting but if he continues his current form into 2022 then he could be a shoo-in for next year's award. He has been sensational, scoring 17 times in 18 appearances across all competitions, and also leads the league in assists (eight). 

Salah scores every 92 minutes, on average, while Sadio Mane has bounced back from his struggles last season with seven league goals.

Mane has played in 14 derbies, contributing to seven goals, scoring five himself, while Salah has netted twice across five appearances against Everton.

While Liverpool's talismanic duo head into Wednesday's fixture in fine fettle, Everton are in the midst of an injury crisis that has exposed their weak squad.

Richarlison should return from suspension and Abdoulaye Doucoure played at Brentford, but Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina remain out.

Calvert-Lewin has been a huge miss but the influence of Doucoure and Mina should not be understated.

With the pair playing, Everton have won three of six league games, averaging 1.8 goals for and 1.3 goals against, picking up 1.8 points per game. Without at least one of them, Everton have won just one of seven and averaged 1.7 goals against and 0.7 goals for. Their points per game drops to 0.6.

Liverpool's last league win over Everton came on December 4, 2019, a 5-2 thrashing at Anfield marking the end of Marco Silva's tenure.

Eight of Liverpool's last nine top-tier trips to Goodison have finished level but, unless Benitez can pull off an unexpected result, his fate may be similar. 

Karim Benzema will be extra motivated to win the 2022 Ballon d'Or after finishing fourth in this year's voting, according to Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The 33-year-old has scored 34 goals for Madrid this calendar year and was recalled to the France squad in May after a six-year exile.

Benzema's combined 46 goals and assists in 2021 has been bettered only by Erling Haaland (48), Kylian Mbappe (51) and Robert Lewandowski (59) from Europe's top five leagues when taking all club competitions into account.

The Madrid striker finished behind Euro 2020 winner Jorginho, Lewandowski and record seven-time winner Lionel Messi at Monday's Ballon d'Or ceremony, with N'Golo Kante completing the top five.

Benzema's Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos has argued the Frenchman did more than Paris Saint-Germain star Messi this year to win the award.

But Ancelotti accepts the decision, determined by journalists from across the world, and insists Benzema will not be fazed by finishing outside the top three.

"We have to give fair value to the classification," he said at a news conference previewing Wednesday's LaLiga contest with Athletic Bilbao.

"Messi has won and we must congratulate him. The individual awards are important but if they do not win it is not a catastrophe. I hope next year a Madrid player will win it.

"Benzema has had a great season and finished fourth. He will continue to be motivated to try to be first next time.

"If I had a vote, I would not choose any player outside of my own team. I'd have voted Benzema first, Vinicius [Junior] second, [Thibaut] Courtois third, Casemiro fourth.

"But you have to respect and congratulate Messi on winning."

Madrid-linked forward Kylian Mbappe finished ninth, but Ancelotti does not believe leaving Paris Saint-Germain will necessarily enhance his chances of winning the coveted crown.

"Playing for a great club can help you, but it is still an individual prize," Ancelotti said when asked specifically about Mbappe.

"These players will not cry because they have not won the award. The likes of Benzema and Courtois will accept it without a problem."

Benzema and Vinicius are in contention to start Wednesday's clash with Athletic as Madrid aim to make it five league wins in a row and maintain a four-point lead at the top.

Madrid are unbeaten in their last 12 LaLiga games against Athletic (W8 D4), one short of their best unbeaten run against the Basque club in the top flight.

Ancelotti, who has lost only one of his four LaLiga games against Athletic, is prepared to make changes to Madrid's line-up three days on from their 2-1 win against Sevilla.

"It's an evaluation I make every day," he said. "The dynamics of the team right now are very good. I won't rotate for the sake of it, but if we have any risks then of course we will do it.

"We are facing a well organised team at the back. Marcelino trains all his teams very well, especially in a defensive sense.

"This game will demand a lot from us and we need some offensive clarity. They are also a team that attacks vertically, so we must show good balance."

Despite having to contend with injury problems and a congested schedule, Ancelotti reiterated Madrid are not likely to bring in any new players in January.

"You have the summer to improve the squad," he said. "I don't like using January to adjust as that means something must have gone wrong in the summer.

"If players are not happy then we'll think about it, but we are not looking to sign. The squad is fine and will compete until the end."

Carlo Ancelotti believes Vinicius Junior has "something special" after his stunning late strike sealed a 2-1 win for Real Madrid against Sevilla on Sunday.

Karim Benzema had cancelled out Rafa Mir's opener before half-time at the Santiago Bernabeu, setting the stage for Vinicius to secure maximum points in the 87th minute with a thunderous drive from 22 yards.

The Brazil international has now scored nine goals in 14 LaLiga appearances this season – one more than in his previous 82 games for Los Blancos in the competition.

Ancelotti has long been impressed with the forward's all-round play, but he is delighted that the 21-year-old has added goals to his game.

"Vini has something special," Ancelotti said. "His goal was extraordinary; a spectacular shot.

"He did not have the opportunity to make a difference with dribbling, he could not do what he wanted, but he has focused on being effective in the game.

"It's another step towards being one of the best. I knew his quality in one on one situations, in dribbling, but he did not have that ability to score goals in the past. He has shown another quality; he had never shown it."

The result moved Los Blancos four points clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad at the top of the table, with Sevilla a further point back in fourth.

It meant Madrid have now won more points from losing positions than any other team in LaLiga this season (10).

"The rival was very strong and they showed all their qualities in the first half," Ancelotti said. "After their goal it was difficult for us to press up; we became unbalanced and we gave them opportunities.

"After our first goal, though, we controlled the game. We finished the game well."

 

Madrid are in action again on Wednesday when Athletic Bilbao travel to the capital, and Ancelotti revealed he will likely have to shuffle his pack.

"Those who have come off the bench, like Eduardo Camavaniga and Federico Valverde, brought a lot of energy," he said.

"I can think of some changes I will make as the team is tired – we play every three days. Valverde – we need him because he is a player who puts all his energy into the game."

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