Xavi has full confidence that Gerard Pique will not let off-field matters impact his performances, as he suggested the Barcelona defender will be motivated by the criticism coming his way.

Pique has had to defend himself in recent days after it emerged he had negotiated a €24million commission when the Supercopa de Espana was moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020.

The 35-year-old's sports entertainment company Kosmos was behind the deal, and leaked audio recordings led El Confidencial to report they would benefit to the tune of €4m per tournament over the six-year agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), defended himself in a news conference on Wednesday, two days after Pique told a Twitch stream: "I have nothing to hide, everything we have done is legal."

Another leaked discussion between Pique and Rubiales surrounded the centre-back potentially going to the Tokyo Olympics as part of Spain's squad.

While Xavi conceded the situation is difficult, he insists he trusts Pique's intentions around the Supercopa, while claiming his former team-mate will be motivated to perform better by the controversy.

"He is outgoing and likes to be on people's lips," Xavi told a news conference ahead of Barca's LaLiga meeting with Real Sociedad.

"I am more diplomatic. I know him. If he wasn't focused, I would warn him, but it [attention] gives him fuel. It's adrenaline for him. It's like a drug, in a good sense of the word. He's focused.

"Pique's Twitch didn't bother me, it [would] bother me if he didn't give it his all or didn't follow the rules. It's Gerard and I know him. I know how to manage him and he needs it. He's doing well to compete, he needs this stimulus. 

"It's very difficult, my opinion doesn't change anything. There are two people involved. I know Rubiales well, he's a noble guy.

"I trust his honesty. He must explain himself, and [so must] Pique. I think they looked for the good of the great majority. I want to think that. If it is ethical or not? There are opinions of all kinds."

 

Away from Pique, Xavi has his own problems to think about. Barca have lost their last two games, suffering successive home defeats across all competitions for the first time since April 2003 after reverses in the Europa League against Eintracht Frankfurt and LaLiga against Cadiz.

The latter defeat left Barca 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, who can move 18 points clear with a win over Osasuna before the Blaugrana's meeting with La Real the following day.

"There was no anger, but I told them things clearly," Xavi said when asked what he told his players following the loss to Cadiz. "You have to be better, the game had to be won.

"I feel bad, I like to win, but I have to face reality. I will not change what I believe. In the league we had a good run until Cadiz."

Barca did have a good run, going unbeaten in 15 LaLiga matches before that 1-0 loss at Camp Nou on Monday.

They are level with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid on 60 points, but sit just five ahead of sixth-placed La Real.

Barca, though, are unbeaten in their last 11 league meetings with the Basque team and have not lost any of their last 12 LaLiga away games.

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), has rejected claims of wrongdoing after reports that Gerard Pique asked him to intervene in the selection of Spain's squad for the Tokyo Olympics.

A series of conversations between Rubiales and Pique have been leaked by Spanish publication El Confidencial in recent days, focusing on Pique's involvement in moving the Supercopa de Espana to Saudi Arabia.

New leaks, however, appear to show Pique asking Rubiales to ensure he was picked for the delayed 2020 Olympic Games, at which he wished to make his Spain return after retiring from international football in 2018.

Pique is allegedly heard telling Rubiales in one audio message: "You have to do this for me Rubi, you have to get it for me," referencing a spot in the Olympic squad coached by Spain U21 boss Luis de la Fuente. The Barcelona centre-back is also have said to have hit out at Sergio Ramos' more public request to be involved.

At a news conference held on Wednesday, however, Rubiales denied the messages exposed any wrongdoing from himself or Pique, saying it was "normal" for players, with many of whom he is close, to make such requests.

"Maybe another one [player] appears who asked me to, and it's not Pique. I'm going to keep talking to them like that. I have a conversation with someone I've known for years and I speak as I speak," Rubiales said.

"There were more [players] who asked me. He [Pique] announced a long time ago that he did not want to return, and I spoke with Luis de la Fuente so that he would know who had called me. 

"It is common when one is a great player and he wants to come back [to the national team]. Then Luis made a very different decision. We act with the utmost honesty. He is not the only footballer who has asked me to do so."

Pique, along with Ramos, was ultimately left out of the squad, with Spain earning the silver medal after a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Brazil in the final.

Meanwhile, attention has also been drawn to the new four-team format introduced for the Supercopa since it moved to Saudi Arabia, with Rubiales' federation accused of being motivated by a financial need for giants Real Madrid and Barca to remain involved.

Rubiales admitted that the likelihood of those two clubs being involved did result in greater revenue being generated through TV rights sales, but denied that this amounted to any sort of favouritism.

"We sell the TV rights to the final all over the world. There are some countries that wait to bid when they are the finalists," Rubiales added. "If there is a derby or Clasico, the offer multiplies a lot. 

"That adds to the management and would affect the variable. [But] we have no idea who is going to play in the final."

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), has refuted claims of wrongdoing amid controversy surrounding the Supercopa de Espana.

Messages and phone calls between Rubiales and Barcelona stalwart Gerard Pique have been leaked to the media.

The audio recordings revealed Pique helped negotiate a €24million commission when the Supercopa was expanded to four teams and moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020.

It was a deal reportedly worth €40m to the RFEF for every tournament played in the middle-eastern state.

Spanish publication El Confidencial, which released the audio on Monday, claimed Pique's Kosmos group, a sports entertainment company founded in 2017, would benefit to the tune of €4m per tournament over the six-year agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Pique insisted he had done no wrong, telling a Twitch stream: "I have nothing to hide, everything we have done is legal."

On Wednesday, Rubiales gave a news conference to address the issue and hit out at the people who hacked the RFEF communications, calling them "gangsters" and suggesting more than one person or group was involved in the hacking as he denied charging any commission.

"I qualify as a gangster whoever has used that information for a spurious interest. I know who benefits," Rubiales said.

"I do not charge commissions. How would you be if the information about your life was stolen, private conversations? I qualify this as a mafia. I don't think this can be achieved by one person."

Explaining how the switch to Saudi Arabia came about, Rubiales said: "Kosmos proposed a change of format for the Supercopa. They started to work on it.

"We spoke to Saudi Arabia, the US, China, countries in Africa and other countries. It was clear that their financial relationship would not be with the RFEF, but with Saudi Arabia."

Rubiales also insisted there was no conflict of interest "because there is no economic relationship with Kosmos".

He suggested the hackers could go as far as to plant evidence of wrongdoing against him and added: "There are several complaints. We have suffered several attacks. Here are some criminals who are trying to damage my image [and the] RFEF.

"We are going to collaborate with the police, and it is under investigation."

Frenkie de Jong disagreed with Joan Laporta after the Barcelona president said the club could be proud of their performance in the Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Real Madrid. 

Barcelona twice came from behind to force extra time against Madrid in Riyadh last week, but Federico Valverde struck the decisive goal in the 98th minute to give Los Blancos a 3-2 success. 

Laporta went to the dressing room after the final whistle and told the players they could be proud of their performances, with the footage being published on the club's official social media channels.

De Jong took a dim view of Laporta's perspective after his 87th-minute goal against Deportivo Alaves on Sunday secured a 1-0 LaLiga success, ending a three-game winless streak. 

"We didn't play badly against Madrid, but it saddens me to say that we are proud," said De Jong. "When you lose, you always have to be disappointed." 

The victory saw Barca move above Real Sociedad and into fifth in LaLiga, with fourth-placed Atletico Madrid just one point ahead of them. 

"The victory was very important because we are in a difficult phase of the season," said De Jong. 

"We have to improve our play, although it was very difficult because the pitch was frozen. We have to be more precise with the ball, especially in the opposition's half. 

"The goal is to qualify for the Champions League and then we'll see what position we achieve." 

On his personal display, he added: "When you score, it doesn't mean you play well. I have to improve, but it's not a disaster either." 

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez predicted Luka Modric could win the Ballon d'Or for a second time after his masterclass in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Croatian playmaker Modric scooped France Football's prestigious prize for world player of the year after his dazzling performances at the 2018 World Cup.

He will turn 37 before the Qatar World Cup in November, but Modric's goal and overall display in the 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday showed he remains a force.

Thibaut Courtois saved a late penalty from Raul Garcia as Madrid made sure of a first trophy since Carlo Ancelotti returned to the club for a second spell as coach.

Asked about Courtois and Modric, Perez said after the game: "Without wanting to brag, they are the two best in their position. The best goalkeeper and Modric in enviable form, worthy of winning the Ballon d'Or again."

Modric's passing accuracy this season is an outstanding 90.41 per cent, and even in the opposition half it is 89.03 per cent, which are impressive numbers given he plays a lot of high-tariff balls.

He has created eight big chances for others this season already and has five assists, while the shot he sent arcing past Unai Simon in the 38th minute at the King Fahd Stadium gave Modric a first goal of the season. He took away the most valuable player award from Sunday's game.

Perez is still probably getting excited too soon, given the Ballon d'Or is an end-of-year prize, but Modric was excellent, and midfield colleague Toni Kroos had a 95 per cent accuracy rate from his game-high 100 passes, helping ensure Madrid had the game tied up before withstanding a late flurry of attacks from Athletic.

Former Barcelona captain Lionel Messi took the Ballon d'Or for a record seventh time last year, with even Robert Lewandowski's Bayern Munich goalscoring feats not enough to knock the Argentine great off his accustomed top spot in the vote.

 

Madrid should win more silverware this season. They lead LaLiga, have a Copa del Rey last-16 clash with Elche on Thursday, and remain in the Champions League, albeit with a tough tie against Paris Saint-Germain coming up next in that competition.

Perez enthused about the prospects for this Ancelotti stint, saying of Madrid's early success: "It means a lot."

Quoted in Marca, Perez said: "We always want to win everything, they taught us that since we were little. This year it was 60 years since I became a member, and that's how we were educated. I work along the lines that Santiago Bernabeu set for us, and I am happy because we have won the first title."

Courtois did not particularly guess right for Garcia's penalty, as much as guess late, meaning his outstretched leg could reach the ball down the middle as the rest of his body lurched to the right.

"I was hesitating between going to the right or staying in the middle," the Belgian goalkeeper told #Vamos, "and that's why I kept my foot there and I was able to stop it. If not, we would have had a heart-stopping final few minutes."

Real Madrid secured the first trophy of Carlo Ancelotti's second spell as head coach by strolling to a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored as the LaLiga leaders proved far too strong for Athletic, who beat Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Benzema's goal was a second-half penalty and took him to 18 career goals against Athletic. They are the team against whom he has scored the most goals, and he was a threat throughout this one-sided game.

Even when Athletic were awarded a late spot-kick themselves, with Eder Militao sent off for handling Raul Garcia's header, they could not take advantage. Garcia's penalty carried plenty of punch, but Thibaut Courtois saved with his legs.

Ancelotti was a Champions League winner during his first stint with Madrid, and the experienced Italian will hope this success in Riyadh proves to be the first of many trophies second time around.

Madrid had a string of early half-chances, with Benzema, Toni Kroos and Modric among those who could not capitalise.

Casemiro then threatened twice in quick succession, forcing Unai Simon to tip an ambitious long-range strike wide for a corner, before a looping header from the midfielder was touched over the bar by the goalkeeper.

Modric made the breakthrough in the 38th minute. Rodrygo dribbled into the Athletic penalty area from the right flank before laying off the ball sensibly to his veteran team-mate, and from 17 yards the Croatian swept an elegant shot high into the right corner.

Madrid were awarded a penalty after a VAR check in the 51st minute when Benzema's shot struck Yeray Alvarez on the arm. Benzema powered the spot-kick into the left corner and Madrid looked home and hosed, having barely faced any pressure from Athletic, who won this competition last year.

The 89th-minute penalty could have made for a nervy finish, but Courtois came to Madrid's rescue.

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has said he is "very excited" to be leading Los Blancos into another final ahead of Sunday's Supercopa de Espana clash with Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia.

The LaLiga leaders progressed after a hard-fought 3-2 win against Barcelona on Wednesday, with substitute Federico Valverde hitting an extra-time winner.

Athletic overcame Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the other semi-final on Thursday, and Ancelotti has admitted he will have to change his tactics for Marcelino's men on Sunday.

"I'm extremely happy to be experiencing this period, I'm very excited," he told reporters in a news conference. 

"Being back in a final again is special and even more so when it's at the helm of Real Madrid. This team is used to these types of games and these moments."

The two teams played each other twice in December in LaLiga, with Madrid emerging victorious on both occasions, 1-0 at the Bernabeu and 2-1 at San Mames.

"We have to analyse the opposition," Ancelotti added. "We know each other very well because we have played twice in a month, once in Madrid and once in Bilbao. It's going to be a very hard-fought match, just like the others were.

"Athletic have a range of attributes, including a solid defence, organisation, pace up top, quality on set pieces... We have to bear that in mind. Our approach will be different to the semi-final because Athletic have different characteristics to Barcelona."

The former Chelsea and Everton manager also addressed a question about his team's style of play and he was keen to dismiss the idea that there is a defined approach that guarantees success.

"I respect everyone, every facet of football is to be respected," he added. "There's not some magic approach which guarantees you'll win. The perfect system doesn't exist. 

"You don't win every time because you play with the ball, or on the counter. A game can be won on set-pieces too. If we play defensively one day, it doesn't mean we're a defensive team. We've scored more goals than any other team in LaLiga."

Ancelotti also had words of praise for Karim Benzema, who scored Madrid's second on Wednesday and has plundered 23 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions this season, as well as registering nine assists.

"He hasn't changed, he's as humble as ever," his manager said. 

"What's changed is how others are seeing him. They're looking to him more as a leader. I think people look at him differently to how they did six years ago."

Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal will miss the Supercopa de Espana final against Athletic Bilbao in Riyadh on Sunday after testing positive for coronavirus.

Carvajal started the 3-2 semi-final win over fierce rivals Barcelona at King Fahd Stadium, but will not feature in the showpiece at the same venue this weekend.

The LaLiga leaders revealed on Friday that the Spain international had returned a positive COVID-19 test.

Lucas Vazquez replaced Carvajal at the end of normal time in the victory over Barca, which was secured courtesy of Federico Valverde's extra-time strike.

Holders Athletic came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the second semi-final on Thursday.

Diego Simeone believes Atletico Madrid will be held back from achieving their aspirations this season if they cannot address their problems in defending against aerial threats.

Atleti let a lead slip to lose 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao in the semi-final of the Supercopa de Espana in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

The LaLiga champions looked set to face city rivals Real Madrid in the final at King Fahd Stadium on Sunday after Unai Simon's unfortunate own goal put them in front just after the hour mark.

Yet the holders mounted a great fightback in Riyadh on Thursday, Yeray Alvarez rising to head in a corner from Iker Muniain after 77 minutes.

Teenage substitute Nico Williams won it for Athletic nine minutes from time, finishing clinically with his left foot from inside the penalty area after Simeone's side failed to deal with another corner.

Jose Gimenez's red card for a dangerous challenge on Inigo Martinez added insult to injury for Atleti.

There were elements to the performance that pleased Simeone, but he fired a warning that his side are unlikely to challenge for trophies unless they can solve their issues in the air.

 

"There are things that can't be hidden. The team doesn't have defensive strength in aerial play and that takes away from us the possibility of having better games and better opportunities to be higher up in LaLiga and to stay in this competition," said the Atleti coach.

"This isn't the time to talk much. Everything looks much worse with the result, but there were good things. Joao [Felix] played a good game, [Angel] Correa worked, [Rodrigo] De Paul did well when he came on, [Mario] Hermoso's game was very good, Marcos [Llorente] was able to play for 45 minutes coming in with an overload in his glute, and we have to improve in training, on a day-to-day basis and get what comes to us from that."

Asked if it seemed his team had finally reached a point where they had stopped believing, he replied: "It's an opinion more than a question. I hear that as an opinion.

"We believe in the work we do. We're trying to improve. Since the Rayo [Vallecano] match [a 2-0 win on January 2], I think we've played good games, but we need to improve something very obvious that makes us lose points, [league] positions and stops us being in finals. It is up to us to improve that and increase the aggressiveness in the areas."

Llorente started the game at right wing-back before being replaced by Renan Lodi at half-time, but the pair between them only provided one cross from open play throughout the contest.

It laid bare the concerns Simeone has over that position following the sale of Kieran Trippier to Newcastle United.

While he is happy with the options at his disposal, with Sime Vrsaljko another who can play the role, Simeone said the club were exploring options in the transfer market.

"We have Vrsaljko as a replacement. He can play there. The club is working with what can be done in pursuit of the benefit of the club and of the team," he said.

Jan Oblak says Atletico Madrid's 2-1 Supercopa de Espana defeat to Athletic Bilbao was "difficult to explain" and warned they must solve their defensive frailties. 

The LaLiga champions looked set to face city rivals Real Madrid in the final at King Fahd Stadium on Sunday after Unai Simon's unfortunate own goal put them in front just after the hour-mark.

Yet the holders mounted a great fightback in Riyadh on Thursday, Yeray Alvarez rising to head in a corner from Iker Muniain after 77 minutes.

Teenage substitute Nico Williams won it for Athletic nine minutes from time, finishing clinically with his left foot from inside the penalty area after Diego Simeone's side failed to deal with another corner.

Jose Gimenez's red card for a dangerous challenge on Inigo Martinez added insult to injury for Atleti.

Atleti have been vulnerable from set-pieces all season and goalkeeper Oblak says they have to tighten up.

He told MoviStar: "It is difficult to explain. Two set-pieces and this year we have conceded a lot [from set-pieces].

"We wanted to reach the final, we wanted to win the Super Cup, but we didn't do enough. I wish Athletic the best in the world, they won and they deserve to be there."

He added of Atleti's issues with defending set-pieces: "It is the question we want to solve, a lot of goals conceded this year. Many due to our failures. 

"It sure is a difficult time. You have a game like today where you go 1-0 and they score two goals from set-pieces.

"It is difficult to explain, we have to find the answer to this question. If it is not going to be complicated until the end of the season."

Oblak says Atleti can have no complaints with their defeat and must show a positive response.

"We have not played a good game. The plan was not that, it was to press and have more of the ball. The whole team is disappointed," he said.

"It is a difficult moment, you have to get up, with your head up, improve a lot. Each defeat is very hard and this one more because it was to go to a final for a title that we wanted a lot.

"We can talk, but words are useless until we solve it on the field."

Nico Williams climbed off the bench to score the winner as Athletic Bilbao came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 and reach the Supercopa de Espana final at King Fahd Stadium.

Atleti looked set to face city rivals Real Madrid in the final after Unai Simon's unfortunate own goal put them in front in the second half.

But Athletic mounted a fightback, Yeray Alvarez equalising and substitute Williams completing the comeback with nine minutes to play in Riyadh, where Jose Maria Gimenez saw red late on.

The holders and LaLiga leaders Madrid will do battle for the first trophy of the season on Sunday.

Joao Felix had the ball in the back of the net only eight seconds into the semi-final, but the Portugal forward had strayed offside.

Atleti wanted a penalty when Thomas Lemar went down under a challenge from Alex Berenguer, but referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez and the VAR saw nothing untoward before Jan Oblak denied Inaki Williams at the other end.

Yannick Carrasco let fly from long range, but his venomous drive was straight at Athletic goalkeeper Simon in a first half that fizzled out after a bright start.

The LaLiga champions were in front just after the hour-mark, Joao Felix rising to meet an outswinging corner from Lemar and seeing his header strike an upright before hitting Simon and creeping over the line.

Inigo Martinez came close to an equaliser when Oblak kept out his powerful header, but Alvarez levelled after 77 minutes, leaping to head Iker Muniain's corner home.

Athletic had the momentum and Oblak produced a great save to deny Williams, but the teenager put his side ahead by slotting in with his left foot when Atleti failed to deal with another corner.

Gimenez was given his marching orders following a VAR check right at the end for a dangerous high challenge on Martinez as Atleti crashed out.

Nico Williams climbed off the bench to score the winner as Athletic Bilbao came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 and reach the Supercopa de Espana final at King Fahd Stadium.

Atleti looked set to face city rivals Real Madrid in the final after Unai Simon's unfortunate own goal put them in front in the second half.

But Athletic mounted a fightback, Yeray Alvarez equalising and substitute Williams completing the comeback with nine minutes to play in Riyadh, where Jose Maria Gimenez saw red late on.

The holders and LaLiga leaders Madrid will do battle for the first trophy of the season on Sunday.

Joao Felix had the ball in the back of the net only eight seconds into the semi-final, but the Portugal forward had strayed offside.

Atleti wanted a penalty when Thomas Lemar went down under a challenge from Alex Berenguer, but referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez and the VAR saw nothing untoward before Jan Oblak denied Inaki Williams at the other end.

Yannick Carrasco let fly from long range, but his venomous drive was straight at Athletic goalkeeper Simon in a first half that fizzled out after a bright start.

The LaLiga champions were in front just after the hour-mark, Joao Felix rising to meet an outswinging corner from Lemar and seeing his header strike an upright before hitting Simon and creeping over the line.

Inigo Martinez came close to an equaliser when Oblak kept out his powerful header, but Alvarez levelled after 77 minutes, leaping to head Iker Muniain's corner home.

Athletic had the momentum and Oblak produced a great save to deny Williams, but the teenager put his side ahead by slotting in with his left foot when Atleti failed to deal with another corner.

Gimenez was given his marching orders following a VAR check right at the end for a dangerous high challenge on Martinez as Atleti crashed out.

Federico Valverde scored in extra time as Real Madrid advanced to the Supercopa de Espana final with a 3-2 victory over Barcelona. 

Vinicius Junior gave Madrid a deserved lead shortly after the midway point of the first half in Riyadh, yet Luuk de Jong ensured the sides went in at the break level with a fortuitous equaliser. 

Karim Benzema restored Los Blancos' advantage in the 72nd minute, only for Ansu Fati to draw Xavi's men level once again with seven minutes left of normal time. 

Valverde clipped home eight minutes into extra time, however, to set up a final clash on Sunday against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who do battle in the second semi-final on Thursday. 

Madrid's bright start was rewarded in the 25th minute when Vinicius raced beyond Ronald Araujo and fired past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen after Benzema had dispossessed Sergio Busquets on the halfway line.

Barca pulled level four minutes before the interval, Eder Militao's attempted clearance inside the six-yard area smashing against De Jong and spinning in off the inside of Thibaut Courtois' right-hand post.

Moments after crashing an effort against the upright, Benzema slotted home from close range after Vinicius' cross had been diverted into his path by Ter Stegen. 

Substitute Fati, who was making his first appearance since November 6, sent the game to extra time, though, heading Jordi Alba's cross past Courtois from six yards.

Carlo Ancelotti's men sealed their spot in the final in the first half of extra time when Valverde slid home after a counter-attacking move that saw Barca desperately outnumbered. 

Twelve months ago, Dani Alves was in training with Sao Paulo in between a disappointing draw with Athletico Paranaense and 1-0 home defeat in the San-Sao derby to Santos.

At the same time, Vinicius was in the midst of a Real Madrid goal drought that began in late October and didn't end until March 1.

Now, they are preparing to face each other in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, with Alves astonishingly back at Barca and – perhaps even more surprising – Vinicius probably one of the two best players in LaLiga.

It's fair to say that, at this point last year, there were growing concerns Vinicius simply wasn't going to be the player many had hoped or predicted.

While he was still only 20, he didn't seem to have developed a great deal since joining from Flamengo in 2018. If anything, he looked as though he was in reverse, and rumours were beginning to swirl regarding his future.

 

It was a little like when Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu in Star Wars doubts the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker is 'the One' to destroy the Sith.

Yet, Vinicius (SPOILER ALERT) succeeded where Anakin failed, the Brazilian managing to get himself back on the right path. In terms of decisiveness, he looks unrecognisable now, so ruthless that you'd suggest he was more machine than man – just without the helmet and Darth Vader's asthmatic problems.

First and foremost, Vinicius' haul of 12 goals is already three times his previous best in a single LaLiga season, and he's still got almost half a campaign left.

Undoubtedly Carlo Ancelotti's trust will be playing a part. Zinedine Zidane never quite gave the impression he had absolute faith in Vinicius, but the Italian has been unwavering in that regard practically ever since he got the job for a second time.

But Vinicius deserves the most credit.

He's showing much more maturity in his game. He's gone from being the most frustrating player on the pitch to very often being the most decisive.

His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is up to 0.49 from 0.3, which suggests he's generally getting into better positions than before – but perhaps even more importantly, though connected to that, is the fact he's averaging 0.67 goals over the same period.

Last season that figure was just 0.14, roughly half his xG, evidence that his decision-making and composure were at a pretty low level.

Vinicius is creating chances more frequently as well (1.9 per 90 mins, up from 1.5), but his biggest improvement is definitely in his decisions in front of goal.

 

Of course, outperforming xG can be a sign of good fortune, so some might suggest his form isn't sustainable – we won't know whether that's the case for a while yet.

But even when you disregard that, the improvement he's shown is massive. He's gone from wasting chances he shouldn't, to scoring chances he shouldn't.

His first goal in the recent 4-1 win over Valencia was an interesting exhibition of his new-found striker's instinct. Not only did he continue his run after offloading to Karim Benzema, he then made his own luck when bundling the ball through a crowd before nonchalantly passing into the bottom corner.

While maybe not an astounding goal in isolation, it's difficult to imagine that passage going the same way last season. Confidence breeds confidence, and he looks almost unstoppable.

With that in mind, the man he'll come up against on Wednesday will presumably be getting himself pumped up for a real challenge.

Of course, Alves has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore the hat. If we go back to the bad Star Wars analogies, Alves is Obi-Wan Kenobi. You thought he was gone for good but returns when you need him most.

 

This will of course be his first Clasico since returning to the club in November, answering Barca's call when all they could afford were free signings.

As much as anything, Wednesday's game should provide Xavi with understanding as to what the 38-year-old's ceiling is.

It's unlikely he'll be fazed about the prospect of tussling with Vinicius, though he'll be aware of the standard his compatriot is now playing at.

If Vinicius can be kept quiet, Barca's chances of success will increase exponentially, and it's by no means outlandish to suggest this game could be a turning point in their season, as Xavi noted in his pre-match news conference.

With a recent bank loan allowing them to sign Ferran Torres and president Joan Laporta declaring Barca are "back", all of a sudden the outlook isn't so gloomy, particularly now they're through the worst (they hope) of an injury and coronavirus outbreak crisis.

Xavi's brought through several talented young players already, and then there were injured 'wonderkids' Ansu Fati and Pedri waiting in the wings. They look set for important roles over the rest of the season and beyond – you might even suggest there's plenty of cause for optimism at Camp Nou.

The Supercopa offers a chance to really consolidate the growing positivity, and success in the Clasico might indicate Barca are genuinely back.

Carlo Ancelotti insisted Real Madrid are not favourites to beat Barcelona in the Supercopa de Espana and would be worried if his players thought otherwise.

Wednesday's Clasico in Riyadh will determine who will face either Athletic Bilbao or Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa final on Sunday.

Madrid were 2-1 winners at Camp Nou in the previous meeting in LaLiga in October, and the gap between the sides has only widened since.

Los Blancos sit top of the league table after 21 matches, with Barca in sixth, 17 points behind their great rivals.

Ancelotti, though, thinks that will count for little with a place in the final up for grabs.

"I'd be worried if the players thought we were favourites, but they don't think that. They think we have to do everything to win," the Madrid coach said on Tuesday.

"These games are always balanced, however much of a gap there is in the table, just as the league game was balanced.

"When you play a game, you can win, draw or lose. The game will choose a winner. We have to play at our best level. We play against a team who are strong and who have the same objective, which is to reach the final."

 

This will be Xavi's first Clasico as Barca coach, the former Blaugrana midfielder having taken over from Ronald Koeman just two weeks after the 2-1 home defeat.

Although Xavi has earned praise for his use of young players and for striving to restore a typical style to Barca's play, results have been disappointing, with the Catalans having won only five of 11 matches since his appointment.

Still, Ancelotti believes they are showing signs of progress in their performances.

"I like them because they're a team with an identity, in the way Barca always have. I think they're a team who are going to improve with [Xavi's] contribution," he said.

"They have experienced players like [Sergio] Busquets, [Gerard] Pique or [Jordi] Alba, who always give a lot to the team. But the youngsters they're pushing forward stand out a lot, like Gavi or Nico, who can have a great future."

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