Club World Cup opportunity gives Real Madrid respite from domestic woes

AFP , Monday 6 Feb 2023

Real Madrid head to Morocco in search of their fifth Club World Cup trophy, a welcome distraction from crisis talk after falling eight points behind rivals Barcelona in La Liga on Sunday.

Mallorca s Giovanni Gonzalez, left, in action against Real Madrid s Vinicius Junior during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Mallorca and Real Madrid at the Son Moix stadium in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. AP


Carlo Ancelotti's side were beaten 1-0 at Real Mallorca in a frustrating game which dented their bid to retain the Spanish league title, but they can earn their second piece of silverware of the season this week.

Madrid lifted the European Super Cup in August, beating German side Eintracht Frankfurt, but were damaged by defeat against rivals Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup final in January.

The record four-time Club World Cup champions face Egyptian side Al Ahly, runners-up in the African Champions League, on Wednesday in the second semi-final.

In the first, on Tuesday, Brazil's Flamengo, 2022 Copa Libertadores winners, play Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal, holders of the Asian Champions League trophy.

Real Madrid won a La Liga and Champions League double last season but have struggled to hit the same heights this year.

French striker Karim Benzema, the current Ballon d'Or holder, has been set back by frequent injuries and is a doubt for the semi-final, while several other squad members have also been sidelined.

The latest is goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, not fit to face Al Ahly after a thigh problem, but holding onto a faint hope of return for a prospective final on Saturday.

Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, Eden Hazard and Lucas Vazquez are set to miss the tournament entirely.

Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Lunin stepped in for Courtois against Mallorca and said the team had to focus on their new challenge in Morocco.

"It's Real Madrid and we always come back," said Lunin.

"We've got the Club World Cup coming up and we have to be ready for it.

"We can't spend too much time thinking about defeat. We have to study our mistakes and move on."

Madrid will also be happy to escape for a few days to get away from the circus around winger Vinicius Junior.

The Brazilian forward feels targeted by opponents, fouled 10 times against Mallorca, and involved in a confrontation with defender Antonio Raillo.

Vinicius has also been the victim of racist abuse on multiple occasions this season from opposition supporters, including during Madrid's defeat last weekend, a matter being investigated by La Liga.

In Rabat, where Los Blancos face Al Ahly, Madrid will relish playing in front of an audience more interested in enjoying Vinicius' quality rather than haranguing the 22-year-old.

"This affects La Liga but now we have to think about the Club World Cup," said Ancelotti on Sunday.

"We're going with a lot of hope, with difficulties too, but we will manage it in the best way we can."

Packed schedule

Despite a refreshing change of scenery, the extra matches are a double-edged sword for Madrid.

Ancelotti has complained about Madrid's intense calendar, blaming tiredness for some of his team's injury issues.

"We won't throw away a competition, because this club does not throw away competitions," Ancelotti said last week.

"We are excited to play and the players like it, but there's a limit for everything and I think that right now, with this calendar, we're going over it."

As well as winning in 2014, during Ancelotti's first spell in charge, Madrid also lifted the trophy in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Madrid also won three Intercontinental Cups in 1960, 1998 and 2002 -- a match between European and South American champions, which merged with the Club World Cup in 2005.

Egyptian Premier League leaders Al Ahly have won the African Champions League a record 10 times, while Madrid have lifted the European equivalent a record 14 times.

Al Ahly beat MLS side Seattle Sounders 1-0 on Saturday to reach the semi-finals, thanks to Mohamed 'Afsha' Magdy's late strike, after thrashing Auckland City 3-0 on February 1 in the first round.

Despite going unbeaten since August 27, Al Ahly remain underdogs against European juggernauts Madrid.

During their seven previous appearances at the tournament, the only time Al Ahly have faced a European side was in 2020, when they lost 2-0 to Bayern Munich.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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