As rain and hail lashed the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville 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, with whom they will finish the season Copa del Rey as their only prize. 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 ($9.7m; £7.8m) 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 relationship between the clubs at an institutional level and it is clear why second place is important to Real. The problems started when Atletico stopped supporting officially European Super League – although sources with knowledge of the project say they remain part of it – which has led to a breakdown in relations between Perez and the chief executive of his city rivals, 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 his Barcelona counterpart. Joan Laporta.
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By the time Saturday’s game took place, however, there were signs that Madrid were already on holiday. Rafa Mir put Sevilla ahead in less than three minutes, with the help of an apathetic Real defence. Assistant coach Davide Ancelotti had taken advantage of the low stakes to complete his UEFA Professional Course in Cardiff, Wales. And left back Ferland Mendy implemented an individualized plan during the warm-up portion as he recovers from injury.
It’s a season some of the coaching staff have described as the “toughest” of their career due to the accumulation of games – by the end of the campaign, Madrid will have played 61 games in all competitions. “Besides, the World Championship in Qatar killed them,” was the opinion of several voices in the dressing room. Real have not looked up from the bottom in La Liga since the middle of the season.
But this goal from Mir got Madrid going on Saturday. Ancelotti and his assistant Francesco Mauri – Davide’s replacement on the touchline – began to demand more intensity from the players. Mauri was especially energetic, encouraging Dani Ceballos on. With his past at rivals Sevilla Real Betis and an uncertain future at Madrid, the midfielder needed no encouragement. He was one of Madrid’s best players on Saturday night, constantly taking chances for his teammates.
“It’s hard to look for motivation, but we found it,” Ancelotti admitted at the post-match press conference. Therefore Rodrygo overcame an early deficit to turn the tables with a stunning long-range free-kick and an even better solo effort to take his season to 19 goals – more than in the previous three campaigns combined. The Brazilian missed his hat-trick and was substituted in the 81st minute. “You want to score and 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, Madrid have scored 74 times in La Liga, six more than Simeone’s side – although Atleti conceded 31 goals to Los Blancos’ 35. If Madrid can seal second place, they will at least ensure they continue. holiday with a slightly more positive outlook than before.
(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)
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