In the space of about 24 hours over the weekend, the outlook for Real Madrid and Barcelona changed considerably even if the table didn't.

While their results weren't exactly polar opposites, clearly Madrid came into a new week – the week of a Clasico – with more of a spring in their step.

Los Blancos were held to a draw by local rivals Atletico Madrid. While failing to beat such infamously obdurate opponents – even at home – may not be the most embarrassing of results, it was a bit of a comedown from the Anfield demolition they inflicted on Liverpool and, more crucially, there was a certain assumption about the outcome of Barca's clash with Almeria on Sunday.

As it happened, Barca fell to a shock 1-0 loss. They went from an assumed 10-point lead at LaLiga's summit to being seven points clear of Madrid.

In the context of a seven-point lead, it does seem a little daft to be trying to frame Barca's situation as anything other than positive, but they're undoubtedly going through a testing period – arguably their trickiest such spell of the season.

 

Sunday's surprise defeat came just three days after Europa League elimination by Manchester United. Although their 4-3 aggregate defeat was close on the scoresheet, not even ardent Barca fans would suggest they were deserving of progression – Erik ten Hag's men were, over the two legs, the better team.

Of course, it's not possible to say at this point whether the past couple of weeks simply represent a minor blip for the Blaugrana, or if it's part of something broader.

But Thursday's Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Madrid is the start of a spell that includes three Clasicos in just over a month.

It's a period that will almost certainly define Madrid's season, and potentially Barca's.

In LaLiga this season Barca have been far more consistent – in terms of results – than Madrid. Since their mid-October meeting, a 3-1 win for Carlo Ancelotti's men, the defending champions have dropped points six times in the league; Barca have won 12 of 14 matches.

 

But Barca's form in Europe this season has understandably raised concerns. Two defeats to Bayern Munich, one to Inter, a fortunate draw and loss agains United – it does bring into question their ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest games, and against the teams who are willing to take the fight to them.

Of course, the most recent Clasico was something of an exception. In that mid-January contest, Barca quite comprehensively picked Madrid apart in the final of the Supercopa de Espana, winning 3-1 in Riyadh. They were even 3-0 up for 21 minutes until Karim Benzema's very late consolation.

That appeared to be a statement win, but the make-up of their team on Thursday will be rather different to seven weeks earlier.

Two of the three goalscorers – Pedri and Robert Lewandowski – will be absent. Also out is Ousmane Dembele, usually the provider of the kind of explosive pace and unpredictability that can stretch any team.

 

With key injuries, decreased morale, and back-to-back defeats for the first time since last April, Barca couldn't have picked many worse times to descend into difficulty. But then again, could there be a better time to beat Madrid?

Clearly, Almeria did Madrid a huge favour on Sunday, and given how erratic – at least in comparison to Xavi's side – Los Blancos have been in LaLiga, they need a few more boosts yet.

In fact, the aforementioned inconsistency that's blighted Madrid in the league since the October Clasico has meant they've been continuously hoping for the smaller clubs to be a banana skin for the leaders. Before Almeria, only Espanyol had obliged.

Now, Madrid have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, potentially putting two trophies within their grasp.

It's all well and good Madrid waiting and hoping for other teams to give them a helping hand and derail Barca while they stumble every few weeks, but they're the side best equipped to aid their own ambitions.

 

Barca haven't lost three in a row across all competitions since April 2016 – inflicting a seven-year low on their bitter rivals would be an emphatic reminder that Madrid are still there, fighting on both fronts in the Copa and LaLiga.

Three editions of Spanish football's biggest game look set to be decisive in one way or another.

For Madrid, these matches will likely dictate whether 2022-23 is a success or not.

Lionel Messi, Lionel Scaloni and Emiliano Martinez made it a clean sweep for Argentina in Monday's glitzy ceremony for the Best FIFA Awards in Paris.

Paris Saint-Germain forward Messi was crowned the Best FIFA Men's Player, Scaloni took the the Best FIFA Men's Coach and Martinez the Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper.

The award period spans between the start of the 2021-22 season through to the end of the 2022 World Cup, which saw Argentina end their 36-year wait to win the competition.

Martinez, who plies his club trade for Aston Villa, finished ahead of Thibaut Courtois and Yassine Bounou of Real Madrid and Sevilla respectively in the voting – although Courtois made the cut for the FIFPro Men's World 11.

Scaloni was next to pick up an award after seeing off competition from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti, who won a LaLiga and Champions League double last season.

La Albiceleste have lost just one of their 23 games since the start of last season, with their solitary loss coming in their opening Qatar 2022 group game against Saudi Arabia.

Messi made it three from three for Argentina by claiming the top prize at the ceremony in the French capital, which started with a poignant tribute to Brazil great Pele.

Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Messi's PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe had also been in the running for the award.

Argentina's fans also claimed the FIFA Fan Award.

Their domination on the men's side was not quite matched by European champions England in the women's prizes.

While Argentina dominated the men's side of the voting, it was a clean sweep for England in the women's side of things.

Mary Earps was named the Best FIFA Women's Goalkeeper and Sarina Wiegman took the Best FIFA Women's Coach award for a third time.

But Beth Mead was pipped to the Best FIFA Women's Player accolade by Alexia Putellas, last year's winner.

Other winners included Luka Lochoshvili, then of Austrian side Wolfsberger, in the FIFA Fair Play Award category for potentially saving the life of opponent Georg Teigl during a game after the Austria Vienna player fell unconscious mid-match.

Polish amputee footballer Marcin Oleksy won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal for his perfectly executed bicycle kick for Warta Poznan against Stal Rzeszow.

Carlo Ancelotti acknowledged it will be "difficult" for Real Madrid to win LaLiga after Los Blancos were forced to fight back in a frustrating 1-1 draw with 10-man rivals Atletico Madrid.

Madrid would have fancied their chances of moving within five points of leaders Barcelona when Atleti substitute Angel Correa was controversially sent off with Saturday's derby poised at 0-0.

Atleti then looked set for a memorable win when Jose Gimenez headed them in front at the Santiago Bernabeu, only for 18-year-old forward Alvaro Rodriguez to spare Madrid's blushes late on.

With the stalemate handing Barcelona the chance to go 10 points clear when they visit Almeria on Sunday, Ancelotti is aware of the size of Madrid's task.

Asked about the title race by DAZN, Ancelotti said: "It was already very difficult before this match, now it's more. We are going to fight until the end, that's what I can say.

"We lacked a bit of freshness. But mentally more than physically. At 1-0, it took us 10 minutes to compose ourselves, to reposition ourselves.

"In the first half there was a lack of intensity and in the second, we reached it at the end, but we didn't fully take advantage of the numerical superiority."

However, Ancelotti did reserve praise for Alvaro, who became the youngest player to score in a Madrid derby in LaLiga this century (aged 18 years and 226 days).

"It was very important for him, a young man with an enormous dream of playing for Real Madrid," Ancelotti said of the Uruguayan forward. "This will be a special night in his life."

Alvaro's 85th-minute header denied Diego Simeone a famous victory on the day he matched Luis Aragones' record tally of 612 games in charge of Atleti, and the Colchoneros boss opted to focus on Correa's red card – issued for an innocuous push on Antonio Rudiger – in his post-match interview.

"Those who have played know that contact is not always a blow. Rudiger is 1.94 metres tall and such a brutal blow left him sitting down… then he immediately gets up," Simeone told DAZN.

"It may be a yellow, but taking out a player for that... there would be no players left on the field. 

"It repeats itself, it is becoming normal and that is not right, and it would be nice if we could all compete in the same way.

"I think that VAR exposes errors much more. Every time we come here, it is never our turn to be in favour."

The result saw Atleti halt a run of three successive league defeats at the home of their cross-city rivals, though Madrid have now lost just one of their last 14 matches against Los Colchoneros in LaLiga (W6 D7).

Teenage forward Alvaro Rodriguez came off the bench to rescue Real Madrid in a dramatic 1-1 derby draw with 10-man Atletico Madrid, heading a late equaliser to cancel out Jose Gimenez's goal.

Despite half-time substitute Angel Correa controversially seeing red for a push on Antonio Rudiger, Atleti looked set for a famous win at Santiago Bernabeu when Gimenez headed them into the lead with 12 minutes left.

However, 18-year-old Rodriguez rose to nod Luka Modric's corner beyond Jan Oblak with five minutes remaining, scoring his first senior goal for Los Blancos in dramatic fashion. 

While Madrid will be relieved to have avoided a surprise defeat, they are now seven points adrift of LaLiga leaders Barcelona, who could extend that gap to 10 points when they visit Almeria on Sunday.

Carlo Ancelotti said the "issue of age is the same for veterans as it is for youth" in expressing empathy for Sergio Ramos following his international retirement from Spain.

The veteran defender announced he was calling it a day from international football earlier this week after a hugely decorated Spain career, saying head coach Luis de la Fuente had left him no choice.

Ramos racked up 180 appearances for La Roja - making him their most-capped player - while he played a vital role as they lifted the European Championship trophy in 2008 and 2012 either side of becoming world champions in South Africa in 2010.

But the Paris Saint-Germain centre-half, who turns 37 next month, last played for Spain in March 2021 and was left out of Luis Enrique's squad for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.

Although Luis Enrique's replacement De la Fuente initially said the door was open for Ramos to potentially return to the team, the defender indicated the new head coach had changed his stance when announcing his decision to call it quits.

Real Madrid boss Ancelotti, who coached Ramos during his first spell with Los Blancos between 2013 and 2015, said he can understand the frustration.

The veteran coach also highlighted notable examples to demonstrate that age is not important when determining a player's impact.

"The issue of age is the same for veterans as it is for youth," he said. "If a player complies, he does not have to look at the passport.

"If at 17 he deserves to play, let him do it. He doesn't have to play if he doesn't deserve it or if he's not better than another, the same with a 37-year-old player.

"A coach has to evaluate what happens on the field every day, in each training [session], if the player is well and can meet, no matter the age. Through thick and thin, it never has to be something to make a decision, in my opinion.

"Sometimes, they tell me I don't use the academy and forget that I put [Gianluigi] Buffon in at the age of 17 at the beginning of my career. It was because he was very good, better than others.

"The Champions League has been won by a 39-year-old player like [Paolo] Maldini, who trained once a week and played because he was better than others, period. If you are better than others, you have to play." 

Carlo Ancelotti says Real Madrid's goal remains to win every trophy possible this season, despite sitting eight points behind Barcelona in LaLiga.

Madrid have already won the Club World Cup, have qualified for the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and are well on their way to the last eight of the Champions League after their 5-2 first leg win at Liverpool in the round of 16 on Tuesday.

However, they have dropped points in five of their last 11 league games to fall well behind Barca in the title race, also losing to the Blaugrana in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Speaking ahead of Saturday's derby against Atletico Madrid, head coach Ancelotti recognised things could be better, but he is confident of pushing Madrid's Clasico rivals all the way in the remaining 16 league games.

"We're going to try to win every competition. We're second in the league, so that won't be easy," he said, later adding: "No, I am not happy with the season [so far].

"I would rather be eight points clear and have won the Supercopa de Espana, and a 5-0 result at Anfield would have been better than 5-2, but still, we're doing very well... Hopefully we can recover those lost points [in the league]."

Vinicius Junior was again key at Anfield in midweek, scoring twice, and Ancelotti spoke highly of the in-form Brazilian.

"He works hard, looks after himself, and it is so important that he can keep playing at this level and avoid injuries," he said. 

"What Vinicius shows on the field is what he always tries in training. He has improved a lot in his finishing because he has trained a lot. After training, Vinicius spends 10 to 15 minutes to improve his shooting.

"The challenge ahead is continuity. Trying for 90 minutes, that's what's difficult."

Ancelotti revealed that midfield pair Aurelien Tchouameni and Toni Kroos will be available again after illness, while he also confirmed Nacho will start at left-back against Atletico amid uncertainty around his long-term future at the club.

"I see Nacho every day and there has been a time when he was not happy," he said. "He has not complained to me, and he has continued to suffer the period that he has not played. He has been a professional, and at the moment I always needed him, he has complied.

"I have a weakness which is that [I have to make sure] Madrid is happy... and that only happens if we win. I feel sorry for my players because I am very fond of them. I just want Real Madrid to be satisfied."

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp believes Carlo Ancelotti thinks their Champions League last-16 tie is over after Real Madrid trounced the Reds 5-2 at Anfield in Tuesday's first leg.

The Reds blew an early two-goal lead after Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah's early strikes to suffer the heavy defeat, which leaves them with a mountain to climb in the second leg in Madrid on March 15.

The defeat was the first time the Reds have conceded four or more goals at home in a European game.

Ancelotti insisted the tie is still live after the game despite the deficit, while Klopp remained hopeful, but conceded it was going to be tough to turn it around.

"I think Carlo thinks the tie is over – and I think it as well in the moment," Klopp told reporters. "But in three weeks... the closer you get to the game the bigger our chances become and the less likely it is the tie is over.

"Tonight, with the 5-2, they are pretty good in counter-attacking and we have to score three goals there and take some risk, so that could be a bit tricky.

"We go there, I can say it now already and try to win the game. If that is possible or not, I don't know now but that's what we will try and from there we will see."

Liverpool became the first team in Champions League history to lose by a three-goal margin after being 2-0 up.

Klopp acknowledged Eder Militao's free header from a Luka Modric set-piece straight after half-time for 3-2 shifted the momentum.

"I really thought the 3-2 had a massive impact," he said. "The 2-1 and the 2-2 not so much… my personal feeling was, 'first goal, OK, bad defending but well done as well, the second was slapstick but get over it'.

"Then the third goal directly after half-time, we didn't deal particularly well with that. We don't want to concede goals but I think if we just think about the first half, everybody's impression was, 'Wow, that was a really good first half' even when we conceded two.

"I really thought our people saw it exactly like that, they were outstanding tonight in a difficult game. The first half it was not too difficult to be positive but in the second half when it was difficult to stay positive, they were positive and I am thankful for that."

Defender Joe Gomez was replaced in the 73rd minute with an apparent injury concern, although Klopp had no clear update on his status.

"He showed a little bit of a sign but then we just made a decision," Klopp said. "Now we will see and he will get checked tomorrow."

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti lauded Vinicius Junior as the "most decisive player in world football" after inspiring Tuesday's 5-2 Champions League win over Liverpool.

Madrid found themselves trailing 2-0 early on thanks to goals from Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah, the latter coming after a calamitous Thibaut Courtois error.

But Vinicius scored twice before half-time to level the score – his first a wonderful finish into the bottom-right corner, the second a fortuitous goal that involved him blocking Alisson's clearance into the net.

He then won the free-kick that yielded Madrid's third goal just after the break and got the assist when Karim Benzema made it 5-2.

Seven players from Europe's top five leagues have more than Vinicius' 27 goal involvements across all competitions this term, though Ancelotti would seemingly not swap any of them for the Brazilian.

"Today, in my personal opinion, he is the most decisive player in world football," Ancelotti told reporters of Vinicius, who became the youngest (22 years and 224 days old) away player to score twice against Liverpool at Anfield in major European competition since Johan Cruyff in December 1966 (19y 233d).

"He doesn't stop. He dribbles, assists, scores. Now he is the most decisive. Hopefully he can continue like this."

The match was a far cry from the two teams' previous meeting in last season's Champions League final, which Liverpool dominated before losing 1-0.

It was put to Ancelotti that Liverpool had changed a lot – regressed, even – since that game in Paris, but he was not so sure and looked to impress on his players that the tie is not over yet ahead of the return leg on March 15.

"I only know that we have taken advantage in these 90 minutes and we have to manage the 90 in Madrid well," Ancelotti added.

"Liverpool are a very competitive team, who have created many problems for us. Unfortunately, the tie has not ended.

"They are still a great team in my opinion. They play with intensity and a very high pace, it is difficult to see teams like that in Europe.

"They haven't changed, but we proposed a game plan that was different from the one in the final. Then we played with a low block, and this time our plan was very different."

Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold were so optimistic. After the commendable – albeit imperfect – 2-0 win over Newcastle United at the weekend, Liverpool seemed confident their luck was changing.

Liverpool had endured several previous instances this season of winning games but then struggling to build momentum.

"This feels a little bit different," Van Dijk said. Alexander-Arnold struck a similarly defiant tone.

But Jurgen Klopp's men were brought crashing back to earth in brutal fashion on Tuesday, losing 5-2 to Real Madrid at Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Let's not forget, Madrid were arguably fortuitous 1-0 victors over Liverpool in last season's final. But here, once Carlo Ancelotti's side were on the scoreboard, this was pretty much all Madrid.

It wasn't exactly plain sailing for Madrid, but they're built differently. They're a special case.

Eduardo Camavinga said it best in an interview with the Guardian earlier this week: "People think Madrid are dead, but Madrid are never, never dead."

So when Liverpool rather astonishingly found themselves 2-0 up against the European champions inside 15 minutes, surely even the most ardent Reds fans had a twinge of trepidation deep in their minds.

Madrid have made a habit of seemingly coming back from the dead. Their route to glory last season had them resembling the undead in virtually every tie, with frankly absurd comebacks seeing them past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Lucky? Perhaps, but sometimes you create your own luck, whether that's with individual quality or benefiting from individual errors.

There was a lot of both going on at Anfield on Tuesday.

Darwin Nunez's opener was a delight. Making the run in behind the Madrid defence, he anticipated Mohamed Salah's precise low pass and met it with an impudent flick of the right heel, the connection perfect as Thibaut Courtois was left helpless.

That was the sublime. Then came the ridiculous.

Courtois controlled a bouncing pass in his own area, but with Salah bearing down, the goalkeeper panicked. An accidental touch off his knee caused him to lose all control of the situation, and the Liverpool attacker duly prodded home.

The ground refused to swallow him up, forcing Courtois to cope with the very public violation of his dignity.

But nothing about the opening 15 minutes suggested Liverpool could count on a clean sheet. There were slips, spills and errors galore, the slick pitch proving rather hazardous for both sets of players.

As such, it wasn't particularly surprising when Madrid did pull one back in the 21st minute with a moment of magic of their own.

After a quick interchange with Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior received the ball just inside the box. Seemingly surrounded, one drop of the shoulder opened up space and he somehow found the bottom-far corner.

While Liverpool chances continued to arrive, that incident felt like something of a turning point, and Alisson soon took some of the glare away from his goalkeeping counterpart.

Trying to play out from the back, his pass slammed straight against Vinicius' leg and ricocheted into the net. Klopp emitted a wry chuckle.

Suddenly it became a contest of who would respond better to such a setback. Madrid already showed their impressive hand – could Liverpool match them?

The answer was ultimately unequivocal.

Liverpool were again their own worst enemies at the start of the second half. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez failed to deal with Vinicius legally, the latter deemed to have fouled him on the left edge of the box.

Liverpool's defence lined up across the edge of the six-yard box. So bad was the defending here that Luka Modric didn't even try to put his delivery behind them, instead in front where Eder Militao – incredibly unmarked – was allowed to simply head home.

By now, the intensity Liverpool had shown during the first half was nowhere to be seen. At times Madrid looked like they'd struggle to give up possession even on purpose. The Reds were drained physically and emotionally – Los Blancos could smell blood.

The young Stefan Bajcetic was the next Liverpool player to commit a major error. Robbed of the ball in midfield, within seconds Madrid had the ball in the net again, the previously quiet Benzema seeing his rather tame left-footed effort deflect in off Joe Gomez.

But the fifth and final goal was all about Madrid's quality. Modric rolled back the years with a surging run before finding Vinicius, who showcased his ever-improving decision-making as he lured in the defender prior to slipping through to Benzema. He deceived three – including Alisson – with one swivel with the hips before effortlessly picking out the top-left corner.

Klopp referred to last season's Champions League final defeat to Madrid as "proper torture" – if that's an apt description, then it'll be intriguing to see how he labels this.

The Reds went from looking sensational to immensely fragile within about five minutes, and against Ancelotti's seasoned winners, that's never going to be a recipe for success.

This was the first time Liverpool have ever conceded five goals at home in Europe – it was simultaneously a harsh reality check and a grim reminder of how far they've fallen in less than a year.

Liverpool welcome Real Madrid to Anfield on Tuesday in the Champions League round of 16, and the latest meeting of Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti.

Their respective histories could have been so different.

After Everton and Liverpool had played out a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in October 2015, in the Sky Sports studio, Thierry Henry reached across and placed his hand on a bewildered Jamie Carragher's knee as the news was announced that Brendan Rodgers had been dismissed as Reds manager.

Within minutes, the favourites for the role were being discussed, with frontrunner Klopp ultimately being the man to come in and take the club back to the summit of English and European football.

The second favourite had been Ancelotti, out of work at the time following his exit from his first spell at Madrid, and Carragher argued that while the Italian had the more impressive CV, Klopp was the more suitable choice for the Anfield hotseat after his success at Borussia Dortmund.

"I think with either of those coming to Liverpool, the supporters would be ecstatic," he said at the time. "If it was me, I would go for Klopp ahead of Ancelotti. I think he's got more to prove. Ancelotti is a great manager of course, but he's gone to clubs where you would expect to win trophies.

"It's a difficult job now at Liverpool getting them back into the top four. Forget talking about the title. And I think it needs someone with that energy and drive to get Liverpool back to where it wants to be and I think Jurgen Klopp's that man."

Of course, Carragher proved to be right about Klopp.

It will never be known what would have happened had Ancelotti been hired instead, but he has gone on to enjoy success at other clubs since, with spells at Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton before heading back to the Santiago Bernabeu in December 2021.

The two have faced off numerous times in opposing dugouts, with the upcoming two-legged Champions League tie set to be their 12th and 13th meetings.

It is interesting how frequently Klopp and Ancelotti have come up against one another, especially considering the Italian's 18-month spell at Everton was the only time they have managed in the same league.

They clashed on four occasions in Merseyside derbies – coincidentally after that had been the fixture that led to their names being linked with the Liverpool job back in 2015 – with two draws at Goodison Park in the Premier League and a 1-0 Liverpool win in an FA Cup third round game at Anfield.

The most notable encounter also came at Anfield in February 2021, with no fans in due to COVID-19 restrictions, where Ancelotti masterminded Everton's first win at the home of their neighbours since the turn of the century.

Their other seven meetings have come in the Champions League, Klopp coming up against Ancelotti for the first time during his penultimate season at Borussia Dortmund as they took on Madrid in the last eight, losing 3-0 in the Spanish capital before a spirited but unsuccessful 2-0 reverse back in Dortmund.

Two goals from Marco Reus in the first half had given the German side hope of a comeback, but Ancelotti's men put up the defences and managed to see the game out, a tactic that the Los Blancos head coach has used to good effect against Klopp on numerous occasions since.

He also frustrated Klopp in their first meeting as Liverpool and Napoli bosses respectively, with the Serie A side winning 1-0 at home in the 2018-19 group stage, restricting the Reds to just four shots – none on which were on target – as Lorenzo Insigne struck a late winner.

A Mohamed Salah goal in the reverse fixture was enough to send Liverpool through to the knockout stage with a 1-0 win at Anfield at Napoli's expense, with the Reds going on to lift the trophy in Madrid that season.

The two teams were drawn together again in the group stage the following year, with Napoli again defeating Liverpool in Naples, 2-0 this time, while they played out a 1-1 draw back on Merseyside.

Klopp and Ancelotti would not meet again in the Champions League until after their brief Merseyside derby rivalry, somewhat appropriately in the final as Liverpool faced Madrid in Paris last season.

While the game was heavily distracted by the chaos outside prior to kick-off that an independent investigation has since claimed was the fault of UEFA and the French authorities, on the pitch it had a feel of Klopp's previous struggles with Ancelotti.

Liverpool dominated large parts of the contest, but Madrid were largely able to contain them, though goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois still had to put in an outstanding performance to keep a clean sheet.

Ancelotti suggested after the 1-0 win thanks to a Vinicius Junior goal that Klopp's team were "more decipherable" than others he had faced, but ahead of their next clash, the German coach lavished praise on his opposite number.

"Carlo is the most relaxed manager I ever met in my life," Klopp said at his pre-match press conference. "One of the best people you can meet, fantastic person, a humble person, super smart and nice, and obviously his man management is at a completely different level to all of us, and I respect that a lot and admire it a lot."

Ancelotti reciprocated at his press conference, saying: "I have a good relationship with Klopp. We stayed for a year and a half in Liverpool during the pandemic, and we used to text each other and exchange gifts. He's a really lovely person."

There is clear mutual respect there, strengthened by the duo's personal achievements as well as how difficult they both find games against one another.

Klopp's teams have only managed to find the net seven times against Ancelotti's in 11 games, despite having 153 shots, suggesting the former Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss knows how to restrict them to low-quality chances.

Ancelotti has relied on his team's defensive solidity more often than not, and boasts the superior record with five wins to three defeats and three draws, but he has never been able to beat a Klopp team in an away game when fans have been in attendance, with a noisy Anfield on Tuesday a near certainty.

He surely takes slightly more pleasure in besting Liverpool than he does most other foes following one of his most painful defeats as a coach when his Milan side was beaten on penalties in the iconic 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, despite leading 3-0 at half-time.

This season's final will also be in the Turkish capital, but at least one of Liverpool or Ancelotti will not be there this time.

Klopp v Ancelotti. Germany v Italy. Beard v eyebrow. It is one of the great modern coaching rivalries, and round 12 should be another fascinating contest.

Karim Benzema will start the first leg of Real Madrid's Champions League tie with Liverpool, says Carlo Ancelotti, who is backing Vinicius Junior to shine against the Reds once again.

Madrid were without Benzema for Saturday's 2-0 win at Osasuna, with Ancelotti intent on managing the striker's minutes after he endured an injury-hit few months.  

Ancelotti said the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner would not have faced Liverpool had the first leg of the last-16 tie taken place on Saturday, raising fears he could miss out on Tuesday.

However, Benzema – who top-scored with 15 goals in 12 Champions League appearances last season – has been passed fit to feature from the off on Merseyside.

Asked about Benzema's availability at Monday's pre-match press conference, Ancelotti said: "I see Benzema looking well, tomorrow he will start."

Benzema is looking to end a five-game goal drought in the Champions League, having failed to net in 324 minutes in the competition since his decisive penalty in last May's semi-final second leg against Manchester City.

While Benzema will start, Madrid will be without midfielders Toni Kroos and Aurelien Tchouameni at Anfield, but Ancelotti is backing others – including Luka Modric – to step up.

"I'd like to have them," he said of the midfield duo. "It's a forced transition that we didn't want. It doesn't worry me because the feeling we have without them is good. 

"Those who have replaced Toni and Tchouameni have done well and we have confidence in the whole squad.

"Modric didn't have a good time in January but now he's back to his best level and he's going to keep growing. His condition is good and he still wants to play for Madrid."

Madrid's last meeting with Liverpool was a memorable one for followers of Los Blancos, as Vinicius' goal handed them victory in last season's Champions League final in Paris.

The Brazilian has enjoyed another outstanding campaign for Madrid, though it has been marred by several incidents where he has faced racist abuse from the stands at LaLiga games.

Asked if Vinicius was looking forward to a fixture outside of Spain, Ancelotti said: "He likes to play anywhere. Vini is handling it well and it doesn't affect his performance on the pitch.

"The issue of racism is very serious and complicated, there is no law that changes a person's head, that is done by culture and common sense.

"I don't blame Spain for this, things like this happen in all countries. The most important thing is respect for people.

"Also, this is a very important match. Right now it's a pleasure to watch Vini, not just for Madrid but for all of football. 

"Everyone likes to see his quality and his talent, like with Pedri, Gavi, [Kylian] Mbappe and [Erling] Haaland... It's a pleasure for football to be able to enjoy this quality."

Real Madrid will be without key midfielders Toni Kroos and Aurlien Tchouameni for their trip to Liverpool but Karim Benzema has made Los Blancos' squad.

Benzema, last year's Ballon d'Or winner, has had an injury hit campaign and missed Saturday's win over Osasuna.

Yet the 35-year-old, who has scored 14 goals this season, returned to training ahead of Tuesday's Champions League last-16 clash at Anfield and has subsequently been named in Carlo Ancelotti's travelling party.

However, Madrid will not be able to call on Kroos or Tchouameni.

The injured duo did not play against Osasuna and were not included in Madrid's squad, which was confirmed on Monday.

Ancelotti will be hoping Kroos and Tchouameni return to fitness in time to face city rivals Atletico Madrid on Saturday in LaLiga, with a Copa del Rey Classico against Barcelona following on March 2.

Madrid beat Liverpool 1-0 in last season's Champions League final, a match that was overshadowed by policing issues outside of the Stade de France.

Vinicius Junior scored the only goal as Thibaut Courtois turned in a fine display to help Madrid claim a 14th European crown.

The second leg of the last-16 tie will take place at the Santiago Bernabeu on March 15.

Carlo Ancelotti lauded Vinicius Junior as an "extraordinary player" after the Real Madrid star stepped up in the absence of Karim Benzema.

Madrid's LaLiga top scorer Benzema was rested for the trip to Osasuna on Saturday ahead of Tuesday's Champions League last-16 clash at Liverpool.

Vinicius twice saw goals ruled out for offside at El Sadar and assisted Federico Valverde as Madrid ran out 2-0 winners to cut Barcelona's lead at the top-flight summit to five points.

The Brazil winger created a team-leading three chances for Los Blancos, much to the delight of coach Ancelotti.

"It is clear that Vinicius is a player who makes a difference," the Italian said at his post-match press conference.

"He played an outstanding game. He is an extraordinary footballer."

Ancelotti was less impressed with the manner of Madrid's victory, though, after waiting until the 78th minute for Valverde's opener before Marco Asensio sealed the points 14 minutes later.

"What I liked least is that we have done in the second half what we could have done in the first," he added.

"What I liked most is that the team has not lost its mind and has been patient [in the final stages]. 

"The team has played well. They have had to suffer when they had to suffer and we are very satisfied with that."

Toni Kroos also missed the visit to Osasuna, as well as Aurelien Tcouhameni, but Ancelotti assured Madrid will be prepared for the first leg at Anfield in Europe.

"We had a last-minute problem with Tchoaumeni, but we're fine," he continued. 

"We will go into Tuesday's game with good dynamics. The players are recovering and we will arrive with all the confidence in the world."

Real Madrid closed the gap on Barcelona at the LaLiga summit after late goals from Federico Valverde and Marco Asensio downed Osasuna 2-0 on Saturday.

Carlo Ancelotti rested Karim Benzema ahead of Tuesday's Champions League clash at Liverpool as Madrid, also without Toni Kroos, struggled to victory at El Sadar.

Chances were limited without top scorer Benzema, but Valverde's calm finish after 78 minutes and Asensio's similarly cool strike 14 minutes later snatched a vital win in Madrid's title defence.

Victory moved Los Blancos five points behind Barca ahead of Xavi's side hosting Cadiz on Sunday.

Sergio Herrera thwarted a glorious Vinicius Junior chance after an errant Jon Moncayola pass, while Thibaut Courtois parried away from Moi Gomez in an entertaining opening.

Valverde whistled a long-range attempt narrowly off target before Ante Budimir whipped the best first-half opportunity just wide from the edge of the area.

A resurgent Madrid twice went close to breaking the deadlock after the interval.

Rodrygo had Herrera scrambling with a curling effort that evaded the bottom-right corner and Vinicius' cool finish was denied for offside from David Alaba's throughball.

Osasuna responded as Gomez struck the right post with a driven effort through a crowd of Madrid defenders before Moncayalo volleyed narrowly wide with Courtois static.

Madrid finally edged in front against their mid-table opponents as Vinicius crossed for Valverde to coolly poke into the bottom-right corner, before the Brazil international saw another goal ruled out for offside.

Asensio sealed victory in the closing stages with a deadly finish past Herrera following Alvaro Rodriguez's selfless pass.

What does it mean? Madrid keep feint title hopes alive with another Osasuna win

Madrid have enjoyed their recent visits to Osasuna, winning four of their past five LaLiga trips – they had triumphed just once in their previous six league games at El Sadar before that.

Yet another success on the road at Osasuna means Xavi's Barca cannot afford to slip up, with a potentially title-deciding Clasico at Camp Nou coming in March.

But for now, Madrid's attention will turn to defending their European crown at the resurgent Liverpool, who have won back-to-back games to end a poor start to 2023.

Energetic Vinicius leads the way

Vinicius was central to all of Madrid's attacking play as the Brazil star shone in the absence of key attacker Benzema.

The winger was twice denied by offside decisions and created a team-leading three chances, including the pivotal assist from the left flank for Valverde's opener.

Ancelotti record over Osasuna continues

Ancelotti continued his impressive managerial record against Osasuna with this victory.

The Italian has faced Osasuna eight times in all competitions without losing (W4 D4) – only against Elche (W7 D1) has he managed as many games without defeat (among LaLiga teams).

What's next?

Los Blancos visit Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday, before a crucial derby at home to Atletico Madrid in LaLiga four days later.

Karim Benzema would not have played if Real Madrid's Champions League round-of-16 first leg with Liverpool was on Saturday, says head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Ancelotti ruled out Benzema from featuring at Osasuna in LaLiga this weekend as Madrid look to chase down leaders Barcelona, who currently hold an eight-point lead.

Benzema missed the World Cup with France with a thigh injury, and he was also absent for Madrid's league defeat to Real Mallorca and the Club World Cup semi-final victory over Al Ahly with a muscular issue.

The Ballon d'Or winner did then play and score in the Club World Cup final against Al Hilal and netted twice against Elche in midweek.

Madrid appear to be managing Benzema with a focus on big matches, but Ancelotti insisted on Friday he would not have been able to call on the striker the following day regardless of the opposition.

The European champions visit Liverpool in their next match on Tuesday.

"If the match were against Liverpool tomorrow, I wouldn't play him either," Ancelotti told reporters. "We prefer not to risk him.

"He's a bit tired, like many players, it's true, but he's coming back from an injury, so it's different.

"We hope he will be there by Tuesday."

Ancelotti acknowledged Benzema's advancing age contributes to the requirement for extra precautions to be taken to ensure he is fit and available at the business end of the campaign.

"After the World Cup, he has done very well," the Madrid boss added. "He has scored in almost every game.

"He is not injured. We simply prefer, due to his age, to give him rest. And that way he will be well for the rest of the season."

Madrid bounced back from the 1-0 loss at Mallorca with a 4-0 thrashing of Elche, but with Barcelona winning 11 of their past 12 league matches, Ancelotti knows his team must carry on taking maximum points to keep up with the rampant pace Xavi's men are setting at the summit.

"The goal is to get [the gap] to five points for the moment," Ancelotti explained. "The calendar is demanding, with important matches, and we want to keep the good feeling.

"We're good, but we can improve even more, and we're going for it. In football, you can go from the best to the worst in no time, and vice versa."

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