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Ronald Araujo vs. Vinicius is the key to Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. Who will prevail?

When Real Madrid and Barcelona meet, the classic it’s such a gigantic display of sporting excellence and cultural tension that its global fascination and national importance often obscure some of the smaller details that make a singles match unmissable. Let’s fix that here.

Yes, there is no doubt that Sunday is an occasion when the current Spanish, European and world champions travel to a beleaguered Barcelona that, under all kinds of legal investigations, beset by debt, manacled by the rules of financial Fair Play of LaLiga, they are somehow nine clear points of The whites and they can take an almost unassailable 12-point lead with 12 games remaining if they win their first Camp Nou classic in four and a half years (two losses, two draws). This is a problem.

LIVE broadcast: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Sunday 3/19, 3:55 pm ET, ESPN+

That drama, of Barcelona winning and getting a sniff at their first LaLiga title since 2019, or Madrid pulling off another crushing foray over their biggest rivals to reduce the points gap to six and shatter Barcelona’s confidence, is already delicious. sports history. But there’s also a little diamond of drama built into the bigger picture.

Since Xavi took charge of Barcelona, ​​his team has played Madrid away from the Camp Nou five times in those 16 months. His record is four wins, one loss.

Those classics They were in Las Vegas (a friendly), Saudi Arabia (the final of the Spanish Super Cup) and twice at the Santiago Bernabéu (in LaLiga and the Copa del Rey). Every time Barcelona won, the common themes were a) Ronald Araujo qualification Vinicius offside and b) Carlo Ancelotti’s team did not have enough alternatives, once the superb Brazilian was annulled, to prevent him from losing 4-0, 1-0, 3-1 and 1-0 again.

He classics in which the Uruguayan has faced Madrid’s magnificent left winger have gone in Barcelona’s favor by a 9-1 aggregate scoreline — oh, and the only time in this sequence that Araujo hasn’t been on the pitch for Negar Vinicius , Madrid won 3-1 in the first LaLiga classic of this season and the first two goals scored by the champions were largely due to the superb and chaotic attacks of the Brazilian, the man Ancelotti calls “the most decisive player in the world”.

It’s a pickle dilemma for Ancelotti and it’s been a long time since he, his staff, Vinicius’ teammates and the elusive 22-year-old have found solutions. Particularly given whether they win, lose or draw on Sunday, Madrid will return to the Camp Nou two and a half weeks later, possibly facing the same Araujo vs. Vinicius and losing 1-0 in the Copa del Rey semifinal, first leg. .

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This is not a “head down and hope for the best” moment, but perhaps we can pause for a second and look back at something that could be the inspiration for Xavi’s decisions. If not, it’s still a good source of reference material.

In the 1992 European Cup final, the first time Barcelona won what is now known as the Champions League, Johan Cruyff was the coach of the “Dream Team” and his rival that day at Wembley was Sampdoria. The late Gianluca Vialli, a great friend of his columnist, and Roberto Mancini were the most feared threats in the Serie A team.

Cruyff replaced 21-year-old Albert Ferrer, Barcelona’s emerging right-back who had actually been injured for the previous six months, to do strict man-marking work on Mancini. As nervous as it made Ferrer, and as brutally exhausting as the job was, the tactic worked and that blaugrana alongside Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrip, Hristo Stoichkov, Txiki Begiristain and ronald koeman won the final after extra time.

Ferrer, known as “Chapi”, told me: “I just played my first match back, after half a year injured, 10 days before the final. It was crazy, it was terrible mentally. Not only was I chosen to start the final, Johan gave me the responsibility of marking Mancini, man to man.

“When Johan planned the team’s tactics for the match, he didn’t include me. He simply planned a final that would be 10 against 10. He had already done that job before in LaLiga, against Emilio Butragueño (Madrid) and Fran (Deportivo La Coruña), in fact Fran used to complain ‘Boy, leave me alone!’ and I said ‘Look Fran, I’m not playing and you do not playing… I don’t want to do it, but the manager has told me!

“At Wembley, I didn’t enjoy the game because of the responsibility. While you’re competing, there’s not a moment where you can relax and enjoy the occasion. It’s all tension.

“Unlike now, in those days we did not have video analysis. The staff warned me that Mancini was moving all over the place, that the main duty was to try to be close to him so that he could not take the ball and have time. So By the time Sampdoria got the ball, I was able to handle Mancini well, we all knew that I would try to make sure Roberto didn’t have an impact.

“I was 21 years old and at the end of 120 minutes I was dead on my feet. Mancini tried to push me out of my comfort zone, into positions I really didn’t want to be in. But I needed to do what Johan said. I had my own opinion on everything and I didn’t enjoy the game, but we won.”

And therein lies the problem: victory.

I don’t remember any occasion, between 1992 and Xavi’s first decision to use an anti-Vinicius tactic in 2022, some 30 years later, when Barcelona marked an opponent. it happened to Lionel Messi quite a bit, but it had somehow been seen as low culture for Barcelona, ​​the self-described “gods of cultural football”, to stoop to such a blue-collar tactic.

Now, there are no critics and the whole idea seems like a master stroke from the 43-year-old Catalan coach. Ancelotti’s task, aided by the great brains that surround him, is how to break this trap.

I know that Ferrer distinguishes between the work he did at the current Italian national team manager and what Araujo, so far, has had to achieve against Madrid’s effervescent winger. “Men’s marking is different,” he emphasizes. “I was ordered to follow Mancini everywhere and he deliberately dragged me along. Until now, Araujo has just been marking Vinicius hard and playing him like a right-back against a left-winger. It’s not the same.”

All of which may get to the heart of what needs to be planned on the training ground, and then executed at the Camp Nou, when Madrid think about how to rid Vinicius of such a tag and win the crucial match this Sunday.

And if Ancelotti deployed Vinicius as Madrid’s right-back? Would Xavi order Araujo to follow him? Would you order the right-handed Uruguayan defender to play left-back?

What would happen if Ancelotti gave Vinicius full license to play where he chose according to the flow of the match? Switching from left to right, dropping significantly in midfield, playing like a false 9 right in the middle of attack, with Karim Benzema moving to the left as used to be the case so often when Cristiano Ronaldo I was still leading The whites‘ stroke?

All of these ideas have to do with elusiveness, with sowing seeds of chaos and confusion, and with repeatedly testing both Araujo’s concentration and his ability to make decisions. Any move ‘in’ or across the pitch by Vinicius would naturally leave a gap that players will potentially like. Toni Kroos, Luka modricNacho Fernandez or eduardo camavinga can deliberately attack and try to explode.

An additional bet for Ancelotti could be planning the “what if?” scenario in which Vinicius is simply told to “keep trying” and there is no change in position or tactics… except for astute Italian planning of how his Madrid team can, this time, open Barcelona on a base of 10 against 10.

Vinicius vs. Araujo: two stubborn, determined and obsessed to win South Americans in their early 20s, who face each other in the eternal classic to divide, has the ingredients of a rivalry for history. One that can inspire “did you see that?” moments for years and years to come. But right now, the shrewd bet is that Carlo Ancelotti, with the last two domestic trophies of this season at stake, is thinking of new ideas, new tactics and smarter instructions so that the wonderful Vinicius can finally get rid of his Uruguayan shadow and stay with Madrid. live season.