As rain and hail lashed Seville’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday night, you’d be forgiven for thinking Real madrid players did not want to go to the field.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team has given up long ago La Liga title they won last season, with Barcelona crowned champions earlier this month. Madrid’s holders were thrown out Champions League semi-finals from Manchester City later that week and will finish the season with Copa del Rey as their only trophy in the eyes of many (they have also won the Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup).
As club sources who chose to remain anonymous to protect their status – like others quoted in this article – said Athleticthe team is “already in the preseason.”
But there is one thing left to play for: finishing above city rivals Atletico.
Diego Simeone’s team responded to Real’s 2-1 victory Seville with a victory with the same score yesterday at home to Real Sociedad to be one point behind Ancelotti and co in third place. And although the players are only interested in winning trophies, that is the goal that matters to the Real board with one game left, against Athletic Bilbao, next Sunday.
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Following Madrid’s 4-0 defeat in the second leg against City at the Etihad Stadium, Ancelotti and club president Florentino Perez held a meeting to discuss the future of the team. But the head coach and Perez also made a commitment: to end the season in the best possible way by securing second place in La Liga. It would make it the second consecutive season in which Real have finished above Atletico and would see them earn at least €9m (£7.8m; £9.7m) more than their neighbors in TV rights revenue from La Liga and UEFAwhich is partly dependent on the domestic table at the end of the season.
Add to this the frosty relations between the clubs at an institutional level and it is clear why Real’s 2022-23 runner-up position matters.
The problems started when Atletico stopped supporting officially European Super League project – although sources with knowledge of the project say they remain part of it – which has led to a breakdown in communication between Perez and their CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin. Atletico president Enrique Cerezo is the only figure who has tried to maintain ties, having attended the last Super League conference in Madrid in January, where he greeted Perez and the Real boss’s Barcelona counterpart. Joan Laporta.
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When Saturday’s rain came, however, there were signs that Real were already on holiday.
Rafa Mir Sevilla took the lead in less than three minutes, aided by apathetic defense from the visitors.
Assistant coach Davide Ancelotti had taken advantage of the low-stakes competition to complete his UEFA coaching course in the Welsh capital Cardiff instead. And left back Ferland Mendy implemented an individualized plan during the warm-up portion as he recovers from injury.
Some of Real’s coaching staff have described this season as the “most difficult” of their career due to the accumulation of games – by the end of which the club will have played 61 games across six competitions. “Besides, the World Championship in Qatar killed them,” was the opinion of several voices in the dressing room.
It’s true that Real haven’t looked up to scratch in La Liga since the middle of the season.
But that early goal from Mir got them going on Saturday.
Carlo Ancelotti and assistant Francesco Mauri – Davide’s absent replacement on the touchline – began to demand more intensity from the players. Mauri was especially energetic, encouraging Dani Ceballos on. With his past at city rivals Sevilla Real Betis and an uncertain future at Madrid, the midfielder didn’t need much encouragement. Ceballos was one of Real’s best players tonight, he was constantly taking advantage of opportunities for his teammates.
“It’s hard to look for motivation, but we found it,” manager Ancelotti said of the 26-year-old afterwards.
That is the reason Rodrygo overcame an early deficit to turn things around with a stunning long-range free-kick and an even better solo effort to take his tally for the season to 19 – more than his previous three combined. The 22-year-old Brazil international missed out on his hat-trick as he was replaced by a defender Nachos in the 81st minute. “You want to scoreand I want them not to score against us,” Ancelotti explained in Rodrygo’s ear as he left the field.
For now, Real have the upper hand over Atletico.
As well as being a point ahead, they have scored 74 times in La Liga, six more than Simeone’s side – although Atletico have conceded 31 of those 35 goals.
If Real can seal second place, they will at least ensure that they go into the holiday next Sunday night with a slightly more positive outlook than before.
(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)
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