When Real Madrid and Barcelona meet, the clasico is such a mammoth exhibition of sporting excellence and cultural tension that its global fascination and national importance often obscure some of the smaller details that make an individual match unmissable. Let’s put that to rights here.
Yes, there’s no question that Sunday is an occasion when the reigning Spanish, European and World champions travel to a besieged Barcelona who — under all manner of legal investigations, bedeviled by debt, manacled by LaLiga Financial Fair Play rules — are somehow nine points clear of Los Blancos and stand to take an almost unassailable 12-point lead with 12 matches left if they win their first Camp Nou Clasico in four-and-a-half years (two defeats, two draws). This is a biggie.
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That drama, of Barcelona winning and being able to sniff their first LaLiga title since 2019, or Madrid pulling off another smash-and-grab raid on their biggest rivals to reduce the points gap to six and taking a wrecking ball to Barcelona’s confidence, is already a delicious sports story. But there’s a little diamond of a drama built within the big picture, too.
Since Xavi took over at Barcelona, his team has played Madrid away from the Camp Nou five times in those 16 months. Their record is won four, lost one.
Those Clasicos were in Las Vegas (a friendly), Saudi Arabia (the Spanish Supercup final) and twice at the Santiago Bernabeu (in LaLiga and the Copa del Rey). Each time Barcelona won, the common themes were a) Ronald Araujo marking Vinicius out of the contest and b) Carlo Ancelotti’s team not having sufficient alternatives, once the superb Brazilian was nullified, to prevent them losing 4-0, 1-0, 3-1 and 1-0 again.
The Clasicos in which the Uruguayan has gone head-to-head with Madrid’s magnificent left winger have gone in Barcelona’s favour by an aggregate score of 9-1 — oh, and the only time in this sequence when Araujo hasn’t been on the pitch to deny Vinicius, Madrid won 3-1 in the first LaLiga Clasico of this season and both of the champions’ first two goals owed massively to superb, chaos-inducing attacks conducted by the Brazilian, the man Ancelotti calls ‘the most decisive player in the world.”
It’s a dilly of a pickle for Ancelotti and long overdue that he, his staff, Vinicius’ teammates and the elusive 22-year-old come up with solutions. Particularly given that win lose or draw on Sunday, Madrid will be back at Camp Nou two-and-a-half weeks later, potentially facing the same Araujo vs. Vinicius conundrum and trailing 1-0 from the Copa del Rey semifinal, first leg.
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This isn’t a “head down and hope for the best” moment, but maybe we can pause for a second and look back to something that might be the inspiration for Xavi’s decisions. If not, it’s still a good source of background material.
In the 1992 European Cup Final, the first time that Barcelona won what’s now known as the Champions League, Johan Cruyff was coach of the “Dream Team” and their opponents that day at Wembley were Sampdoria. The late Gianluca Vialli, a great friend to your columnist, and Roberto Mancini were the most feared threats in the Serie A team.
Cruyff deputised 21-year-old Albert Ferrer, Barcelona’s emerging right-back who’d actually been out injured for the previous six months, to do a tight man-marking job on Mancini. As nervous as it made Ferrer, and as brutally tiring a job as it was, the tactic worked and that Blaugrana side of Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrip, Hristo Stoichkov, Txiki Begiristain and Ronald Koeman won the final after extra time.
Ferrer, known as “Chapi,” told me: “I only played my first game back, after half a year injured, 10 days before final. It was crazy, it was terrible mentally. Not only was I chosen to start the final, Johan gave me the responsibility to mark Mancini, man-to-man.
“When Johan planned the team tactics for the game, he didn’t include me. He simply planned a final that would be 10 vs. 10. I had done that job before in LaLiga, against Emilio Butragueno (Madrid) and Fran (Deportivo La Coruna). In fact Fran used to complain ‘Chapi, leave me alone!’ and I’d say ‘Look Fran, I’m not playing and you’re not playing… I don’t want to do it, but the manager has told me to!
“At Wembley, I didn’t enjoy the game because of the responsibility. While you’re competing, there’s no moment in which you can relax and enjoy the occasion. It’s all tension.
“Unlike now, in those days we didn’t have video analysis. The staff warned me that Mancini moved all over the place, that the main duty was trying to be close to him so that he couldn’t get on the ball and have time. So the minute Sampdoria received the ball, I could jockey Mancini tight. We all knew that I’d try and ensure that Roberto had zero impact.
“I was 21 and by the end of the 120 minutes I was dead on my feet. Mancini tried to take me out of my comfort zone, into positions where I really didn’t want to be. But I needed to do what Johan said. I had my own opinion on it all and I didn’t enjoy the game, but we won.”
And there’s the rub: victory.
I can’t recall any occasion, between 1992 and Xavi’s first decision to use an anti-Vinicius tactic in 2022, some 30 years on, when Barcelona have man-marked an opponent. It happened to Lionel Messi quite a lot, but it had become somehow regarded as low-culture that Barcelona, the self-styled “Gods of cultural football,” should stoop to such a blue-collar tactic.
Now, there’s zero criticism and the whole idea looks like a masterstroke from the 43-year-old Catalan coach. Ancelotti’s task, aided by the big brains around him, is how to break that trap.
I know that Ferrer distinguishes between the job he did on the current Italian national team coach and what Araujo has, so far, been required to achieve against Madrid’s ebullient winger. “Man marking is different,” he emphasises. “I was ordered to follow Mancini everywhere and he deliberately dragged me around. Until now, Araujo has simply been marking Vinicius tightly and matching him as a right-back against a left winger. It’s not the same.”
All of which might get to the heart of what needs to be planned on the training ground, and then executed at Camp Nou, when Madrid think of how to get Vinicius free from such marking and win this Sunday’s crucial match.
What if Ancelotti deployed Vinicius as Madrid’s right winger? Would Xavi order Araujo to follow him? Would he order the right-footed Uruguayan defender to play left-back?
What if Ancelotti gave Vinicius complete license to play where he chose according to the flow of the match? Switching from the left to the right, dropping significantly deep into midfield, playing as a false 9 right in the middle of the attack, with Karim Benzema moving left as used to be the case so often when Cristiano Ronaldo was still leading Los Blancos‘ attack?
All of these ideas are about elusiveness, about sowing seeds of chaos and confusion, and about repeatedly testing both Araujo’s concentration and his decision-making skills. Any movement “inside” or across the pitch altogether from Vinicius would naturally leaves a void that, potentially, players like Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Nacho Fernandez or Eduardo Camavinga can deliberately attack and try to exploit.
A side bet for Ancelotti might be to plan for the “what if?” scenario where Vinicius is simply told to “keep trying” and there’s no change of position or tactics… except for the canny Italian planning for how his Madrid team can, this time, open up Barcelona on a 10 vs. 10 basis.
Vinicius vs. Araujo — two stubborn, determined, winning-obsessed South Americans in their early 20s, facing each other across the eternal Clasico divide — has the makings of a rivalry for the ages. 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 stewing over new ideas, new tactics and smarter instructions so that the marvelous Vinicius can finally shake off his Uruguayan shadow and keep Madrid’s season alive.