Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti says his side are "excited, eager, and motivated" for Wednesday's clash with Paris Saint-Germain, calling upon his players to harness the Bernabeu's fiery atmosphere but keep on top of any nerves.

LaLiga leaders Madrid go into their crucial home leg against PSG 1-0 down thanks to Kylian Mbappe's stunning winner at the Parc des Princes, with their hopes of winning a 14th European title this term hanging by a thread.

Madrid have been eliminated from nine of their last 10 knockout ties in the UEFA Champions League when losing the first leg, with the exception being a 3-2 aggregate victory over VfL Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 quarter-finals.

But Ancelotti, who has lifted European club football's foremost prize three times as a coach, insists that his team are approaching the game in good spirits.

"We are preparing for the game now," the 62-year-old said. 

"Everyone is motivated and it's obvious, from the coach's point of view, that it's important to be aware of the atmosphere [in the group] to make sure it isn't too nervous.

"These players are used to games like this. 

"I know exactly what the Bernabeu is like and we're even more motivated.

"We know perfectly well we're not playing this game by ourselves because the whole of Madridismo is behind us, driving us forward, and that makes us stronger."

Carlo Ancelotti feels Real Madrid will have a great chance of beating Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League if they maintain the standard they set in a thrashing of Real Sociedad.

Los Blancos came from behind to thrash sixth-placed La Real 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday and go eight points clear of Sevilla at the top of LaLiga.

Mikel Oyarzabal gave La Real an early lead from the penalty spot after Dani Carvajal upended David Silva, but sublime long-range strikes from Eduardo Camavinga and Luka Modric gave Madrid a half-time advantage.

Karim Benzema scored his 20th LaLiga goal of the season from the penalty spot after having two strikes ruled out for offside and Marco Asensio added a fourth 11 minutes from time.

Madrid now turn their attention to overturning a 1-0 deficit when they face PSG in the second leg of their round-of-16 tie on Wednesday.

Ancelotti's side will have home advantage and the Italian wants to see the same tempo from his team when they take on the Ligue 1 leaders, who will come into the game on the back of a 1-0 loss to Nice.

He said: "We played really well from the beginning. The plan was to press up front, to stop Real Sociedad building attacks from the area. It worked.

"The physical effort was huge, we did well. If we play like this on Wednesday, we have a bigger chance of going through."

The Basques could not live with Madrid's intensity as they swept forward time and again at pace.

They zipped the ball around with great passing and movement in a dominant display, affording La Real just one shot, which gave Ancelotti great optimism heading into a huge European showdown against his former club.

"It was an important match because we had the opportunity to take advantage in LaLiga," he added, alluding to Sevilla's 0-0 draw with Deportivo Alaves on Friday. "The team has understood very well the importance of the match. It is a match that gives us great hope.

"This is the intensity that we have to have and that the fans like. It can be repeated on Wednesday against PSG.

"All of Madrid believes more after this game. The idea of ​​going out [to show their appreciation for the supporters] at the end of the game came from the players, because on Wednesday the help of the fans is essential."

Carlo Ancelotti has no doubt over the motivation of his Real Madrid side as he stressed Los Blancos are "where they want to be".

LaLiga leaders Madrid sat six points clear of second-placed Sevilla at the time of Ancelotti's news conference on Friday, though the Andalusian team might have narrowed that gap down to three before Los Blancos take on Real Sociedad on Saturday.

After seven consecutive wins over Sociedad in LaLiga between 2015 and 2018, Madrid have won just three of their past seven meetings with the Basque side in the top flight and Ancelotti is expecting a tough test.

However, the Italian insisted he is happy with the progress Madrid have made so far during his second spell in charge. While they are out of the Copa del Rey, Madrid are still favourites for the title and are in with a chance of Champions League progression, albeit they must overcome a 1-0 deficit from the first leg of their last-16 tie when they face Paris Saint-Germain next week.

"We have done really good things this season. It could have been better, but could have been worse as well," Ancelotti said.

"I'm honestly happy with the work we've done, the job we've done throughout the season.

"I think we've handled quite well the situations and now we are where we wanted to be in a very important moment of the season.

"It's true we are disappointed about being eliminated in the Copa del Rey when we didn't have Karim [Benzema] but we are six points clear of Sevilla, we have to fight until the end and we can also overcome PSG, so we are motivated to do it.

"I'd like to highlight it's four [league] games in a row that we didn't concede a goal and that's solidity."

Madrid have won 18, drawn six and lost two of their LaLiga matches this season and sit on 64 points. 

With just 12 games remaining, Ancelotti agreed with the suggestion that a relatively low points tally might be enough to secure the title this season, though he does not believe that is a reflection of LaLiga's declining quality – in fact, he mused that it means quite the opposite.

"It's true that now you don't have to reach that high of an amount of points but you can see from two different sides," he said.

"You can think the biggest teams have reached a level but you could also think that the rest of the teams had an upgrade. Right now there are really good coaches, really good players.

"This just means that LaLiga is better than the previous period."

Federico Valverde and Toni Kroos will be missing against Sociedad, though Ancelotti expects both to return in time to face PSG.

"Valverde will be available to play against PSG and I think also Kroos will be available, it's a small problem, I think both will be available and fit for that game," he said.

"It's not a problem, it's a bit of bad luck. We need to live with these type of things, it's normal at this part of the season. Kroos probably will have to stop for five, six days.

"At this moment of the season, these kinds of injuries means that we have managed the squad and also the physical condition [of the players] quite well."

Manchester United's search for a permanent manager continues to take up plenty of column inches, with a new name now entering the mix.

Paris Saint-Germain boss Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax chief Erik ten Hag have long been considered the two frontrunners to take over at Old Trafford.

But a somewhat surprise candidate is now reportedly being considered to succeed interim manager Ralf Rangnick on a short-term basis at the end of the campaign.


TOP STORY – ANCELOTTI A CONTENDER FOR UNITED

According to ESPN, United may look to appoint Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti as they explore contingency plans in their pursuit of a new manager.

While Pochettino and Ten Hag remain on the Red Devils' managerial shortlist, Ancelotti is said to be seen as an ideal short-term fix thanks to his vast experience.

The Italian has previously spent time in English football with Everton and Chelsea, winning a Premier League and FA Cup with the latter in 2009-10.

Ancelotti is currently in his second spell with Madrid and has another two seasons to run on his contract at the Santiago Bernabeu.


ROUND-UP

- PSG have offered Kylian Mbappe a contract worth €50million a year to fend off interest from rival clubs, according to Le Parisian. Madrid are the strong favourites to sign the France international should he depart the Parc des Princes as a free agent in July.

- Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta are also set to be out of contract at Chelsea in the next few months and are not short of potential suitors. Mundo Deportivo reports that Barcelona are confident of signing the pair, while Ajax's Noussair Mazraoui and Jose Gaya of Valencia are also targets.

- Madrid are hoping to replace Dani Carvajal at right-back ahead of next season and have a few potential options already lined up. That is according to El Nacional, with Man Utd's Diogo Dalot, Norwich City's Max Aarons and Pedro Porro of Sporting CP all mentioned.

- Sport claims that Barcelona are on course to wrap up contract extensions for Ronald Araujo and Gavi before the end of the month. Rising star Gavi will supposedly be offered a five-year deal that will include a mammoth release clause to ensure he stays at Camp Nou for the long term.

- Former Germany international Julian Weigl is nearing the end of his time at Benfica and has been offered to teams across the continent, according to Calciomercato. The Italian outlet suggests than Milan would prefer to sign Renato Sanches, potentially giving Roma a clear run for the €35m-rated midfielder.

Carlo Ancelotti said Real Madrid's goalkeeper Andriy Lunin has an elbow injury after he withdrew from the matchday squad for their 1-0 win at Rayo Vallecano, but revealed he has understandably been affected by Russia's invasion of his home country of Ukraine.

Lunin, who is second choice to Thibaut Courtois, dropped out of the squad on Friday.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, following weeks of rising political tensions in the region. The conflict escalated further on Friday, with the fighting reaching the capital city of Kyiv.

Several high-profile sports figures have publicly expressed their opposition to war, including Russia's Andrey Rublev who wrote "no war please" on a camera lens at the Dubai Tennis Championships, joining compatriot Daniil Medvedev in calling for peace.

In the Premier League, Manchester City and Everton showed solidarity with Ukraine ahead of their meeting at Goodison Park on Saturday.

City's Oleksandr Zinchenko and Everton's Vitaliy Mykolenko embraced during the warm-ups, the two Ukrainian players receiving a warm reception from fans inside the ground, with each appearing close to tears as more tributes were paid before kick-off.

Lunin was not present at Vallecas to receive any such support, with Ancelotti saying after the game: "He had a swelling in his elbow, he couldn't move it this morning. 

"It is a medical problem, but I cannot hide that the player is affected. He is thinking about what is happening there, he has people close to him in Kyiv."

Madrid left it late to secure all three points against their neighbours, Karim Benzema's 83rd-minute goal sealing victory.

Asked about the game, Ancelotti said in quotes reported by AS: "Satisfied with the work, with the commitment, we knew that it was going to be competitive in all facets. 

"We risked on the counter-attacks, we tried to combine up front and win the match. 

"We did, although I'm not very, very satisfied. It was a difficult field, because of the atmosphere, the rival, the grass that was not good... Nobody wins here by a large score."

Carlo Ancelotti has refuted suggestions that he could use Real Madrid's upcoming league games to prepare for their crucial Champions League second leg clash with Paris Saint-Germain, for which Casemiro and Ferland Mendy will be suspended.

Casemiro and Mendy picked up decisive yellow cards in the LaLiga leaders' 1-0 first-leg defeat to PSG, ruling them out of the crucial second leg in Spain next month. 

Brazil midfielder Casemiro has appeared in all seven of Real's Champions League games this season, while left-back Mendy has made five appearances, both establishing themselves as key parts of Ancelotti's attempts to bring the Spanish and European crowns back to the Bernabeu.

Speaking ahead of a trip to Rayo Vallecano, Ancelotti insisted that he will not use upcoming games to find the right balance for Real's reunion with PSG, highlighting the importance of their league fixtures.

"What can I tell you? It would be a good idea [to experiment] if we had friendly games," he said.

"But we have two really important games, finals, against Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad.

"Two victories would mean a lot in order to win LaLiga, [so] I will play my best starting 11 in the games before Paris Saint-Germain.

"Toni Kroos can replace Casemiro, but he doesn't need to get used to playing that [deeper] position, he has played it many times.

"I have experienced players, I don’t need to try new things. I Haven't thought yet about who will replace Casemiro and Mendy, as we have two really important matches before that."

Carlo Ancelotti believes the fans are still firmly behind Real Madrid despite a disappointing attendance for their 3-0 win over Deportivo Alaves on Saturday.

Madrid scored all three goals in the second half to go seven points clear at the top of LaLiga.

Marco Asensio's stunning long-range effort broke the deadlock in the 63rd minute, with Vinicius Junior and then Karim Benzema from the penalty spot making the points safe.

A performance in which they struggled to break Alaves down until Asensio's spectacular effort came after a Champions League showing at Paris Saint-Germain in which Madrid were fortunate to escape with a 1-0 defeat.

With a sparse, by their standards, crowd at the Santiago Bernabeu and whistles from the stands as Madrid initially laboured against their less illustrious opponents, Ancelotti was asked if the fans are disengaged.

"No, I perceive that the fans are with us," he replied at a post-match media conference. 

"I see them hooked, wanting us to win LaLiga. On Tuesday we played poorly, but today I think they have seen a reaction."

Madrid have not scored in the first half in all competitions since their Supercopa de Espana triumph over Athletic Bilbao last month.

"We have talked about it this week, that we need to enter the games with the necessary intensity," added Ancelotti. 

"In Bilbao, in December, we opened the scoring twice, but since then we have had more difficulties. The rivals press a lot in the first and usually go down in the second."

Vinicius had been enduring a goal drought stretching back to Madrid's 3-2 win over Barcelona in the Supercopa, with Ancelotti confident the end of that barren stretch will be a boost for the entire side.

"When strikers score, it's always essential," said Ancelotti. "He was having difficulties, but this game is going to help him and the whole team."

Carlo Ancelotti was unmoved by reports Paris Saint-Germain have offered to make Real Madrid-linked Kylian Mbappe the highest-paid footballer in the world.

Mbappe was in devastating form against Madrid on Wednesday, scoring PSG's late winner in the Champions League last-16 first leg at the Parc des Princes after generally impressing throughout.

The France star's decisiveness was fitting given overarching narrative of his future, which has put the two clubs into something of a tug-of-war over the past couple of years.

Madrid reportedly made several offers for Mbappe last year but were rebuffed by PSG, who were insistent that they would be able to persuade the striker to stay in Paris.

But then came January 1 and Mbappe still had not signed a new contract, meaning he became eligible to begin discussing moves to foreign clubs.

Many expect he will join Madrid at the end of the season, but in the wake of their 1-0 win over Los Blancos, PSG apparently made it known they would be willing to give Mbappe a basic wage "far in excess of £500,000 [€600,000], and closer to £1m [€1.2m] a week", according to the Independent.

Ancelotti is not convinced that matters, however.

"Everyone has to think what they want," Ancelotti told reporters on Friday ahead of the clash with Deportivo Alaves.

"I have to say, they pay me a lot and so I am privileged, but what I like is not the money I earn, but what I do."

Ancelotti acknowledged in the wake of the defeat in Paris that Madrid were poor, as they struggled to get control of the contest and subsequently found themselves under pressure for much of the game.

They failed to get a single shot on target for only the second time in a Champions League game since Opta records began (2003-04), and their 0.14 expected goals (xG) was their worst in the competition in just under nine years.

He was asked again about the performance and he recognised the best thing about the game was that they only lost 1-0.

"Sometimes it's the little details that decide the matches," he said. "I'm quite honest, we played very badly against PSG in what we normally do well. We had a bad night.

"This doesn't worry me so much because I know the quality and personality the team has for getting out of this.

"The criticism is justified because we did badly. The first critic is myself. The approach has not been good and I have to take responsibility.

"Criticism must be understood and learned from because sometimes it is very helpful. The idea that I don't talk to the players is nonsense.

"I spoke with the president and with the director and we have the same feeling. We are hurt but I think we are honest: we played badly and the image of Real Madrid was not good, which is what hurts the most. The best thing about the game was the result."

Tuesday's match was the sixth game in a row in which Vinicius Junior has failed to score after an extremely bright first half to the season, while Madrid as a team have netted just once in four.

Ancelotti is not concerned about there being a specific issue with Vinicius, however.

"Everything that happens to the team is happening to him, we've dropped off a bit," he added. "But the team is doing well physically.

"Against Villarreal we did well sometimes and against PSG we suffered until the end. Vini has had a very intense month and now he's going to be more effective.

"We have to score more, that's clear. But now Karim [Benzema] is back, he's the main striker, who scores a lot of goals and gets a lot of assists.

"When he's well, he's better. We've had problems but he's fine and he's going to help us fix it."

Carlo Ancelotti recognised Real Madrid had no answer to Kylian Mbappe in Tuesday's defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, acknowledging the match-winner was "unstoppable".

PSG claimed a slender 1-0 win over Madrid at the Parc des Princes to take a first-leg lead to the Santiago Bernabeu next month.

Mbappe got the decisive goal right at the end, skipping between a couple of defenders before firing through Thibaut Courtois' legs.

But Mbappe had terrorised the Madrid defence throughout, managing seven shots in total, drawing some vital saves from Courtois.

Mbappe also won the penalty that Lionel Messi had saved, with the France striker rising to the occasion against the club many expect him to join at the end of the season.

Ancelotti has rarely shied away from declaring his admiration for Mbappe, and he saluted the 23-year-old's show-stopping display.

"Mbappe is unstoppable," Ancelotti was quoted as saying by Marca.

"We have tried to control him. [Eder] Militao has done very well but [Mbappe] can always invent something out of nothing, and he created at the last minute."

In contrast to Mbappe's, Madrid's performance was significantly lacking in purpose, almost appearing to play for a draw from the outset.

They failed to get a shot on target for only the second time in a Champions League game since Opta records began (2003-04).

In fact, their 0.14 expected goals (xG) is Madrid's worst in a Champions League match since registering just 0.05 xG against Borussia Dortmund in April 2013.

Explaining their issues, Ancelotti continued: "We've done quite well in defence but we haven't been very aggressive.

"We lacked something with the ball, we've missed many passes and it took a lot to get out of their pressure.

"[Marco] Asensio and Vini [Vinicius Junior], [Karim] Benzema as well, they didn't get many balls. With the ball we didn't do as we wanted.

"We tried to start from the back but it didn't work out. The low block had to be more aggressive, but it wasn't a conservative approach. It didn't work out for us, getting the ball as we know."

Benzema was withdrawn in the second half after making his comeback following over three weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, though Ancelotti assured he was not substituted due to that problem.

"Benzema's problem was not physical," he said. "I changed him just before the end, the problem is that the balls we wanted did not reach him.

"I'm optimistic, although we have to do better in the second leg. We have the game at home and we don't have to worry about the away goal.

"It's clear that PSG have a good advantage but hopefully it won't be enough."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti has confirmed that Gareth Bale will exit the club when his contract expires at the end of this season.

The 32-year-old Wales captain, who spent last season on loan at Tottenham, has started only four LaLiga games this season.

Bale returned to the Madrid starting line-up for Saturday's 0-0 draw with Villarreal and after that game Ancelotti surprisingly threw him into the selection mix for Tuesday's Champions League last-16 clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

The Madrid boss was asked about Bale again on Monday and revealed his time with the club was winding down.

"I have a good relationship with him and the rest of the players," Ancelotti told reporters. “Personal relationships are strong when everyone shows respect and he has always done that and has never let me down in that regard.

"In the past, he hasn't had great motivation, but he wants to end things here in a good way.

"Bale has helped this club to win the Champions League, Copa del Rey and signing off on a high here would be good for his career."

Bale joined Los Blancos in 2013 and has had a indifferent time at the club, helping them to two LaLiga titles along with being crowned European champions four times, while having periods out of the side due to injury and selection.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema feels ready "in my head" to face Paris Saint-Germain after his recent injury absence but stressed he will not risk further problems if he does not feel right in training.

The France international has been absent since suffering a hamstring strain on January 23 against Elche.

Madrid have sorely missed their 24-goal top-scorer, managing to net just once in three full games since he sustained his injury, drawing a blank most recently on Sunday in a 0-0 draw at Villarreal.

Fears that he would also miss their Champions League last-16 first-leg trip to Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday were eased when Madrid's Sunday squad announcement included Benzema.

But while that was undoubtedly a positive step, Benzema insists his participation at the Parc des Prince is by no means guaranteed.

"There's been many hours of work and I feel much better," he told reporters. "Now we have a training session to see if I can play, but I have to get more feeling [of his condition] on the pitch.

"Being 100 per cent, the most important thing is in your head. But you have to recover and have good sensations on the pitch.

"It's a difficult time when you're off the pitch. I've done work in Valdebebas [the training ground] and at home to get there.

"In my head I'm ready, but now I have to see on the pitch. It's a great game and if I have to play tomorrow, I will give everything.

"The team knows how to win without me, but I've done everything to get there. I hope I'll be fine but we don't have to risk it because the season is very long."

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti was on the same page as Benzema but left no doubt as to the importance of the striker – if he is fit, he will play.

"I have to listen and make the decision," he added. "He already has the medical discharge.

"He has trained by running and sprinting, but you have to see the feeling [on the pitch]. The coach has to wait to see what he says.

"The player has not played for a month, but it's Karim. If he's okay, he has to play."

Karim Benzema trained with Real Madrid on Sunday and could make a dramatic return in the Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

The France international, who is one of Madrid's club captains, has been absent since suffering a hamstring injury on January 23 against Elche.

However, he has been named in Carlo Ancelotti's 26-man squad for the trip to Paris, where the first leg of the last-16 tie takes place on Tuesday.

Benzema has scored 24 times for Madrid already in 2021-22, and without him the goals have dried up.

The team have managed just one goal in their three full games since Benzema joined the injured list, drawing a blank most recently on Sunday as they drew 0-0 at Villarreal.

Gareth Bale was deployed as a central striker in that game, and after a slow start he became the chief attacking threat, having a game-high six shots and drawing three fine saves from goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.

That came as a pleasant surprise to Ancelotti, who nonetheless indicated Bale was only one of several options for the role against PSG, and he remained hopeful Benzema could be involved.

The fact Madrid were able to send 34-year-old Benzema onto the training pitch with team-mates on Sunday augured well for his prospects, and Ancelotti will now closely monitor the former Lyon frontman ahead of the game at the Parc des Princes.

Speaking on Friday, Ancelotti had been positive about Benzema's prospects, although the fact he played no part against Villarreal indicated Madrid are being ultra careful about his fitness.

Ancelotti said on Friday: "We have good feelings, he is having good feelings. The most important thing is the player's health. If there is a risk, we are not going to take it. We have to evaluate but if he plays on Tuesday, it is because there is no risk."

The match offers the tantalising possibility of Benzema and France team-mate Kylian Mbappe leading the respective attacks.

Mbappe is a known transfer target for Madrid, who failed with a big-money move for the PSG forward in August but could land him on a free transfer at the end of this season, meaning he and Benzema may soon be club-mates as well as colleagues with Les Bleus.

Carlo Ancelotti is considering throwing Gareth Bale into the Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain after the forward showed he still has plenty to offer Real Madrid.

Bale made a vexingly quiet start to Saturday's LaLiga game at Villarreal before springing to life and proving the biggest goal threat on the pitch.

The Wales international had a game-high six shots and was denied by three smart saves from Geronimo Rulli in the goalless draw, Madrid's fifth successive away draw at Villarreal. From one of those opportunities, goalkeeper Rulli flicked a Bale strike against the crossbar.

Considering it was Bale's first game since August for Madrid, after an injury lay-off, what started off inauspiciously turned into a statement performance.

Now Bale could be thrust into the same role, as a central striker, when Madrid travel to take on PSG at Parc des Princes in the first leg of their last-16 tie on Tuesday.

There might be a chance of Karim Benzema being back from his hamstring injury for that game, while Luka Jovic is another option after he almost grabbed a last-gasp winner against Villarreal, hitting the bar with a chip after replacing Bale.

Ancelotti is being non-committal for now, but Bale is in the conversation, and that is a tribute to how well he performed in this comeback game.

Asked if Bale might lead the attack in Paris, Ancelotti said: "I don't know, we have to wait and see what happens in the next few days. Hopefully we can get everyone back.

"He has had the opportunity and he has delivered. He could have scored, he was dangerous. [He has done] everything we ask of him."

Bale had only nine touches in the first half and 19 in all, before he was substituted in the 74th minute. When he got on the ball, however, there was a reassuring quality about his play.

"He had a major injury in September, when he had already started playing," said Ancelotti, who took charge of his 100th LaLiga game as Madrid boss.

"Then it was difficult for him to pick up the pace to avoid problems. Today he has shown that he can be with us, that he is committed."

Madrid have scored just once in their past three games, which is a worry heading into the tussle with PSG, who won 1-0 against Rennes on Friday.

"We need more effectiveness," said Ancelotti, "but I was more worried about the team in the first half when they were not very committed.

"It's clear what we were missing. In the first half, we had a low block, almost too low. We weren't aggressive enough in duels and one-on-one situations.

"That's why Villarreal had more control. In the second half, we were more aggressive without the ball. That was key."

Carlo Ancelotti said "everyone's feelings are positive" regarding Karim Benzema's availability for Real Madrid's Champions League last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain next week.

Benzema has missed Madrid's last two games after picking up a muscle injury against Elche last month, and remains a doubt for Saturday's LaLiga trip to Villarreal.

However, speaking at a media conference ahead of that game, Ancelotti indicated that the 34-year-old – who has scored 24 goals in 28 games in all competitions this season – could be fit for Tuesday's clash in the Parc des Princes.

"We have good feelings, he is having good feelings," he said. "We will see if he will train on Sunday or Monday with the team. Everyone's feelings are positive, but it will be decided on Sunday or Monday.

"The most important thing is the player's health. If there is a risk, we are not going to take it. We have to evaluate but if he plays on Tuesday, it is because there is no risk."

Ancelotti also said he hopes PSG star Neymar will be fit for the Champions League fixture, adding: "I hope Benzema and Neymar can be there, the best players. If the best are there, we'll have the most entertaining game possible."


The former PSG boss was also asked about Gareth Bale. The Wales international has played just three times this season after returning from a loan move from Tottenham, and has not featured since playing in a 1-0 win at Real Betis in August.

"We have a very good working relationship," Ancelotti explained. 

"He's training hard. He's committed to the cause. He has not been playing of late, but seeing him in training I can confirm he is ready to play, and I do know that when he gets that opportunity, he will produce the goods.

"I'll be asked now 'why hasn't he played?' Looking back, he's had some trouble to be fully match fit after having picked up an injury. But these last 15 days or so the intensity has increased and I'm sure he's ready to play. Obviously it is my call to decide when."

It took a 74th-minute goal from Marco Asensio for Real Madrid to see off Granada on Sunday, as Carlo Ancelotti's side capitalised on Sevilla's slip-up against Osasuna.

A 0-0 draw in Pamplona meant Madrid's victory saw them move six points clear of their nearest rivals in the title race. Both Los Blancos and Sevilla have played 23 games.

Ancelotti's team remain favourites to clinch the crown, though last week's defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, and a previous 2-2 draw at home to Elche, showed they are far from infallible.

The former Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss made six changes for the Granada match (the most for Madrid from one game to another this season), which came hot on the heels of the defeat to Athletic, but by and large he has chosen to rely on a core group of players so far this term. 

However, with the return of the Champions League this month and LaLiga matches set to come thick and fast between now and May, might fatigue catch up with Madrid as the run-in approaches? 

The key performers

In total, 13 players have started 10 or more of Madrid's league matches. Of the teams placed second to fifth in LaLiga, Atletico Madrid (15) and Real Betis (14) have had more players start at least 10 games, while Barcelona and Sevilla have both used fewer (11) from the off.

Thibaut Courtois, unsurprisingly, has played in every top-flight game. He has kept eight clean sheets (five goalkeepers in LaLiga have kept more) and recorded a save percentage of 74.4 – among goalkeepers with at least 16 saves, only two have a better record than the Belgian.

 

He has played 2,070 minutes, conceding 20 times from 78 shots on target faced, while his expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded figure of 20.9 suggests he has not overly exceeded expectations when it comes to shot-stopping. Essentially, Courtois has conceded as many goals as would be expected given the quality of efforts he has faced.

Eder Militao has played (and started) 22 times, with David Alaba featuring on 21 occasions (also all starts). The defenders have accumulated 3,863 minutes between them in the league, and have contributed to the attack too, with seven direct goal involvements combined.

Karim Benzema has scored 17 goals from his 21 LaLiga appearances, while Vinicius Junior has been a real success story of Ancelotti's second spell so far. The Brazil winger has directly contributed to 17 goals in 1,694 minutes, averaging a goal or an assist every 99 minutes.

Fringe players to step up?

Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Ferland Mendy, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Federico Valverde and Dani Carvajal have also reached double figures for league starts, while back-up options Rodrygo, Nacho Fernandez, Eden Hazard, Eduardo Camavinga, Isco and Luka Jovic have at least featured in a minimum of 10 games.

Hazard's time at Madrid has been plagued by injuries, but when called upon he has proved useful, creating 3.3 chances per 90 minutes played, which ranks highest out of the players to have played at least 25 minutes.

 

Isco's troubles from last season have continued but the playmaker still has guile and craft, with 2.4 chances created per 90 minutes suggesting he too can make an impact in the run-in. Gareth Bale, though, has made only three appearances in LaLiga, scoring just once, and it does not seem like he will be a man Ancelotti calls on too often even when fit.

With Vinicius suspended on Sunday, Ancelotti handed Rodrygo a chance to shine on the left flank. The youngster had three shots – second only to Asensio (eight) – but crafted just one goalscoring opportunity. Indeed, across his 18 LaLiga games this season, he is yet to score and has provided a solitary assist.

Jovic, meanwhile, has never hit the heights he previously did at Eintracht Frankfurt, though the Serbia forward does of course play second-fiddle to the evergreen Benzema. He has scored just one league goal from 12 substitute appearances this term.

Only Benzema and Vinicius have reached double figures for LaLiga goals so far in 2021-22, while the same pair are also the only Madrid players with five or more assists. Given the lack of end-product from his back-up brigade, it is no surprise Ancelotti wants to stick with the tried and tested.

But, has there been any drop-off?

Let's take a look at Madrid's most-used attackers in LaLiga this term, starting with Benzema.

The 34-year-old has kept scoring consistently through the season. However, despite being Madrid's top assister (seven), all of those came before the end of September.

There's an argument that his game time should have been managed better as well. Prior to the start of November, he completed the full 90 minutes of eight of Madrid's 10 league games – he clocked up 80 and 88 minutes in the other two.

Since that period, although he has technically only played a full league game four times, on two other occasions he played 89 minutes – it's worth noting that he was apparently suffering with his current muscular injury as far back as December and now appears a doubt for their upcoming Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

 

Vinicius, on the other hand, has been a consistent creator of chances, if not always providing assists. His last appearance, against Elche, saw him have 97 touches (his highest tally this season), craft four opportunities (his second-best effort of 2021-22) and engage in 25 duels, another season-high. He has registered over 1.0 xG twice in his last six games and against Elche attempted 13 dribbles, one shy of his season-best from August, showing his attacking output is not suffering as the season goes on.

As a team, Madrid have made seven, 12 and eight high turnovers across their last three league games respectively, up from a slight drop-off (five and three) in their previous two outings. Indeed, that figure of 12, achieved against Elche, is their highest of the campaign, suggesting any fatigue is not impacting Madrid's ability to press just yet.

If anything, Madrid are pressing more efficiently as the season has gone on. Their passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA – a metric that can quantify the extent and aggression of high presses) has dropped from an average of 19.6 in a six-game span between November 6 and December 12, to a median of 11.6 across the six fixtures since.

This is reflected by their high turnover total improving from 31 to 46. Madrid rank joint-10th in LaLiga for high turnovers (147), but no team has had more shots from such situations (37) and only two teams (Getafe and Celta Vigo, both on six) have scored more goals than Los Blancos (four) from these scenarios.

Ancelotti is not renowned for employing a high press, but when his team do hunt the ball in their opponent's territory, they continue to be highly efficient, a scary thought for their rivals.

Even if Madrid have relied on a select group of players more than others, they are not showing many signs of dropping off the pace.

 

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