(Bleacherreport) On Wednesday night at 9 p.m. local time, a resurgent Madrid will play at the Camp Nou in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. All has changed since an insipid Los Blancos team got canned 5-1 in their last encounter, in what turned out to be the final game of the ill-fated Julen Lopetegui regime last October.
Lopetegui’s successor, Santiago Solari, has changed the mood in the camp. His team has just won five consecutive games, including convincing victories against Sevilla and Espanyol in La Liga. It has also scored a hat full of goals—a commodity sorely missed at the club since the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus—against Girona in the quarter-final of Spain’s cup competition.
As we’ve seen several times over recent years, Real Madrid—which has won four of the last five UEFA Champions League titles—is peaking at the business end of the season.
It has unnerved Barcelona and caused a selection headache for manager Ernesto Valverde and the aspirations he harboured to ease his side through a hectic fixture schedule by squad rotation—as he has done in previous rounds of the Copa del Rey—for the two-legged semi-final.
Valverde will be forced to play a full-strength team. A heavy defeat to its eternal rival—which did for the career prospects of recent Madrid managers such as Lopetegui and Rafael Benitez, who lost 4-0 in his only match in charge of a Clasico in November 2016—can have a lasting impact. It could derail Barcelona’s season.
“Valverde will be conscious that a team’s good trajectory can be hampered by a loss and seriously damaged by a bad result against Real Madrid. It’s especially dangerous at a moment when Real Madrid is on a good run of form,” says Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer. “This tie affects everything, including both teams’ prospects in the Champions League and the league. It tempers the mood. In the end, teams can be badly wounded by these games.
“My sensation is that Barcelonismo feels that Real Madrid is becoming a threat again. It is eight points behind Barcelona in the league, but Barca fans think the monster could rise again. It’s a psychological thing.
“For decades, there has been a phenomenon called “Madriditis”—the feeling by Barcelona that Real Madrid is chasing it down and not giving up. [This insecurity] is felt more in Barcelona than it is by Real Madrid.
“Real Madrid has a history of famous comebacks in European competition and, for example, in the second league title that Fabio Capello won as manager in 2007. Real Madrid had a bit of a complex about the great Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola—to such an extent that it supped with the devil in hiring Jose Mourinho—but now it doesn’t have that feeling anymore. It doesn’t see that it has a rival that is too strong that it can’t beat.”
Solari has defied expectations. He’s steadied the ship and made controversial decisions that would have destroyed him if results hadn’t gone his way.
He has promoted Vinicius Jr., an 18-year-old Brazilian starlet signed in the summer. He’s revived the career of Marcos Llorente, a player whose career was drifting. He’s banished Isco and also dropped Marcelo, favouring a youth-team graduate, Sergio Reguillon, for the last four league games on the left flank of Madrid’s defence, which has helped to shore things up at the back.
“Solari has taken very hard decisions,” says Paco Pavon, a former Real Madrid central defender whose football career overlapped with the Argentinian’s five-year playing career with the club.
“He’s left some very important players out of the team, and that’s not easy. Usually, a trainer like him, who is a temporary replacement that comes from La Cantera (the academy) will try not to change things too much. He’ll pass the time and try not to be too noticeable until somebody else comes along.
“Solari is different. He’s been brave. He’s taken very important decisions with good results. It’s easy to talk from the outside, but if you’re in his position, your hand would be shaking making some of those decisions —leaving certain senior players out—but he’s taking them with no problem.”
During Pavon’s six years as a first-team Real Madrid player, he saw seven managers come through the door. There is an inherent instability at the club that can be confounding for players. It’s something Solari—the club’s fifth manager in the last four years—has had to wrestle with.
“Solari took over when the team dynamic wasn’t great,” says Pavon. “It’s very confusing for the players when the trainer is changed midseason, but I think he wins in the cup against Girona and especially the victory against Sevilla—one of the strongest teams in Spain—in the league was an important test he passed. It proved whether the team’s recovery was real or not.
“It was important more for self-esteem than points, and for the big tests ahead: Barcelona in the cup and Atletico Madrid in the league at the weekend.”
Solari’s credibility has been enhanced, and he has kept his options open.
“Solari is not getting married to anyone, as we say here in Spain,” adds Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. “He decided to bench Isco and Marcelo, and Marcelo is a very important figure in Real Madrid’s dressing room because he’s the club’s second captain and he seemed untouchable.
“Solari has decided to pick the players who are in form. He has been key because he put his faith in Vinicius, for example. It was a confidence that Lopetegui didn’t have in him. Vinicius has given the team a shot in the arm it didn’t have two months ago.”
he impish Vinicius—Real Madrid’s most expensive signing since James Rodriguez in 2014—has been a cause for hope, almost excessively so given his age and the fact he has only scored two goals in 11 La Liga games. His enthusiasm is infectious, though. He’s playing with a verve and hunger for the ball that has enchanted the Santiago Bernabeu.
Vinicius has something that the rest of the players don’t—or if they do, they haven’t been showing it,” says Bruna. “He’s being bold. He’s always keen to try things. He’s fast. He still lacks definition, and the ability to score goals, but he is a different kind of player.
“When he has the ball, you have the feeling something might happen. He’s not selfish. He sees other players and if they’re in a better position, he’ll give them the ball. He’s the kind of player you don’t see much of nowadays. He loves to dribble.”
Vinicius’ gusto is in marked contrast to Gareth Bale‘s detachment.
Despite his prodigious medal haul at Real Madrid and the golazos such as his bicycle kick against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final in May, the Wales international has always looked an isolated figure at the club, unloved by the fans and scorned by the Spanish media as a “hypochondriac” because of his troubled history of injuries.
Bale’s potential to score goals, though, is still prized by Solari, who faces a decision over who he partners alongside Karim Benzema—who is playing the best football of his career and is the scorer of six goals in his last four games—in Madrid’s attack against Barcelona.
The coach will have to pick between Bale and Vinicius if, as anticipated, he chooses Lucas Vazquez as his third forward in an attempt to help Dani Carvajal nullify Barcelona’s buccaneering wing-back, Jordi Alba.
“Bale is very important,” says Trueba. “I have doubts Solari could leave him out, but Solari has been doing things we never thought he could do so who knows.
“This goal Bale got against Liverpool—the magnitude of it; for me, it was the greatest goal in the history of the competition—saved his career at Real Madrid and condemned Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The club, and particularly president Florentino Perez, has always been 100 percent behind Bale because he has been Florentino’s big signing. They don’t want him to fail. Florentino always believes he will triumph at Real Madrid. He’s a protected player.
“But Bale is one more of the many numbers of British players who have never fit on the continent. So many British stars never adapt overseas. Bale is the proof. He doesn’t speak Spanish, at least not in public. That gives you the feeling that, after all these years, he hasn’t adapted to the club, to the city, to the ambiance.
“David Beckham did it much better at Real Madrid. Even when he didn’t speak Spanish, at least Beckham connected with the fans, with the stadium, with the club and its history.
“Maybe because Beckham is a good actor. He can deal with any scenario, but Bale hasn’t fit in with the club. Fans don’t feel him close. Unlike with the Vinicius phenomenon, which is starting to overshadow Bale.
“Probably, if you ask the fans, they will prefer Vinicius playing than Bale, but what happens then is that Real Madrid hasn’t fixed its goal problem, and the player who scores most goals on average—now that Ronaldo has left—is Bale, and it’s a game that you win when you score.”
Barcelona’s solution for goals continues to be Lionel Messi, who has hit 29 goals in 26 games this season, as well as incredibly as leading La Liga’s assists chart. He is a doubtful starter for Wednesday night’s game, though, having picked up a thigh injury in the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the weekend.
It gives Real Madrid further cause for optimism in a tie—an unexpected gift for football fans—that could shape the fortunes of both clubs’ seasons.