Dani Alves set for thorough examination by Vinicius as Barcelona hope Supercopa Clasico is turning point

By Sports Desk January 11, 2022

Twelve months ago, Dani Alves was in training with Sao Paulo in between a disappointing draw with Athletico Paranaense and 1-0 home defeat in the San-Sao derby to Santos.

At the same time, Vinicius was in the midst of a Real Madrid goal drought that began in late October and didn't end until March 1.

Now, they are preparing to face each other in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, with Alves astonishingly back at Barca and – perhaps even more surprising – Vinicius probably one of the two best players in LaLiga.

It's fair to say that, at this point last year, there were growing concerns Vinicius simply wasn't going to be the player many had hoped or predicted.

While he was still only 20, he didn't seem to have developed a great deal since joining from Flamengo in 2018. If anything, he looked as though he was in reverse, and rumours were beginning to swirl regarding his future.

 

It was a little like when Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu in Star Wars doubts the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker is 'the One' to destroy the Sith.

Yet, Vinicius (SPOILER ALERT) succeeded where Anakin failed, the Brazilian managing to get himself back on the right path. In terms of decisiveness, he looks unrecognisable now, so ruthless that you'd suggest he was more machine than man – just without the helmet and Darth Vader's asthmatic problems.

First and foremost, Vinicius' haul of 12 goals is already three times his previous best in a single LaLiga season, and he's still got almost half a campaign left.

Undoubtedly Carlo Ancelotti's trust will be playing a part. Zinedine Zidane never quite gave the impression he had absolute faith in Vinicius, but the Italian has been unwavering in that regard practically ever since he got the job for a second time.

But Vinicius deserves the most credit.

He's showing much more maturity in his game. He's gone from being the most frustrating player on the pitch to very often being the most decisive.

His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is up to 0.49 from 0.3, which suggests he's generally getting into better positions than before – but perhaps even more importantly, though connected to that, is the fact he's averaging 0.67 goals over the same period.

Last season that figure was just 0.14, roughly half his xG, evidence that his decision-making and composure were at a pretty low level.

Vinicius is creating chances more frequently as well (1.9 per 90 mins, up from 1.5), but his biggest improvement is definitely in his decisions in front of goal.

 

Of course, outperforming xG can be a sign of good fortune, so some might suggest his form isn't sustainable – we won't know whether that's the case for a while yet.

But even when you disregard that, the improvement he's shown is massive. He's gone from wasting chances he shouldn't, to scoring chances he shouldn't.

His first goal in the recent 4-1 win over Valencia was an interesting exhibition of his new-found striker's instinct. Not only did he continue his run after offloading to Karim Benzema, he then made his own luck when bundling the ball through a crowd before nonchalantly passing into the bottom corner.

While maybe not an astounding goal in isolation, it's difficult to imagine that passage going the same way last season. Confidence breeds confidence, and he looks almost unstoppable.

With that in mind, the man he'll come up against on Wednesday will presumably be getting himself pumped up for a real challenge.

Of course, Alves has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore the hat. If we go back to the bad Star Wars analogies, Alves is Obi-Wan Kenobi. You thought he was gone for good but returns when you need him most.

 

This will of course be his first Clasico since returning to the club in November, answering Barca's call when all they could afford were free signings.

As much as anything, Wednesday's game should provide Xavi with understanding as to what the 38-year-old's ceiling is.

It's unlikely he'll be fazed about the prospect of tussling with Vinicius, though he'll be aware of the standard his compatriot is now playing at.

If Vinicius can be kept quiet, Barca's chances of success will increase exponentially, and it's by no means outlandish to suggest this game could be a turning point in their season, as Xavi noted in his pre-match news conference.

With a recent bank loan allowing them to sign Ferran Torres and president Joan Laporta declaring Barca are "back", all of a sudden the outlook isn't so gloomy, particularly now they're through the worst (they hope) of an injury and coronavirus outbreak crisis.

Xavi's brought through several talented young players already, and then there were injured 'wonderkids' Ansu Fati and Pedri waiting in the wings. They look set for important roles over the rest of the season and beyond – you might even suggest there's plenty of cause for optimism at Camp Nou.

The Supercopa offers a chance to really consolidate the growing positivity, and success in the Clasico might indicate Barca are genuinely back.

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  • From Manchester to Seville: Rangers' 14-year journey back to a European final From Manchester to Seville: Rangers' 14-year journey back to a European final

    None of us truly know where this life is going to take us, and what highs and lows we will experience along the way.

    That is especially true for anyone associated with Rangers Football Club if you had told them after the 2008 UEFA Cup final they would next reach another European showpiece 14 years later.

    As the Gers players trudged off the field at the Etihad Stadium having been thoroughly outplayed by Zenit, the disappointment was tempered with a belief that at least this was a team that had made a final and may have been on the way to more.

    It took nearly a decade and a half, but on Wednesday they find themselves heading to Spain to line up opposite Eintracht Frankfurt to contest the Europa League final.

    Here, Stats Perform takes a look at how Rangers got from Manchester to Seville, with one of the bumpiest rides football has ever seen.

    A night to forget in Manchester

    Under the guidance of legendary manager Walter Smith in 2007-08, Rangers were looking to overthrow rivals Celtic in the league, having been bested by the Hoops the previous two seasons.

    It was no good as Celtic made it a third Scottish title in a row, beating Rangers by three points, but there was a silver lining for the blue half of Glasgow.

    Having finished third in their Champions League group behind Barcelona and Lyon, Rangers found themselves in the UEFA Cup.

    They overcame Panathinaikos on away goals first up, before beating Werder Bremen 2-0 at Ibrox in first leg of the last 16, one of only two wins they actually managed in their entire run.

    After getting past Sporting Lisbon in the quarter-finals, a penalty shoot-out success after 210 goalless minutes against Fiorentina sent Smith's side to the final.

    However, it was a step too far for Rangers as they succumbed to defeat in Manchester, losing 2-0 to a Zenit team containing Andrei Arshavin and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, and managed by former Gers boss Dick Advocaat.

    It was a blow but Rangers went on to win the next three Scottish titles until things began to unravel in the 2011-12 season, with poor form and a points deduction for financial issues seeing Celtic take the crown back.

    That was far from the worst thing that happened to the club that year, though.

    The fall and rise of Rangers

    The financial issues were worse than first feared. Owing significant money to HM Revenue and Customs, The Rangers Football Club plc entered liquidation on 31 October 2012.

    The club was forced to reform under the new ownership of Charles Green and a vote from other member clubs of the Scottish Football League meant Rangers were forced to begin again at the bottom, in the third division.

    Although they had to sell most of their players to raise money and because few fancied playing in Scotland's fourth tier, Rangers still boasted by far the strongest squad in the third division, while manager Ally McCoist had also stayed on to try and take them back to the top.

    They unsurprisingly won the league by 24 points in their first season, and had even fewer problems in the second division, now called League One, going unbeaten and drawing only three of their 36 games, securing 102 points and promotion at the first time of asking again.

    The Championship was a different prospect altogether, though, as Rangers found themselves in with both Hibernian and Hearts. The two Edinburgh clubs ultimately finished above them, though Rangers beat both Queen of the South and Hibs in the playoffs, before losing to Motherwell in the final, meaning they would have to try again.

    Stuart McCall was in charge by that point, and the former Scotland midfielder was able to get the job done in 2015-16, finishing 11 points ahead of second-placed Falkirk.

    For the first time in four years, Rangers were back at the top table in Scotland, but this was always going to be the biggest leap. Their first Old Firm derby back in the top flight ended in a 5-1 drubbing by Celtic.

    During the winter break, Rangers had played RB Leipzig in a friendly, losing 4-0 to the German side, which was perhaps a prophetic sign of how far they would need to rise to get back to where they felt they belonged.

    Rangers finished third in their first two seasons back in the Premiership and decided to bring in a big name to try and force their way into the title picture. Steven Gerrard.

    The former Liverpool star was new to management but was able to secure second place in 2018-19, though also back in Europe, Rangers were unable to get out of the Europa League group stage.

    They made it to the round of 16 the following season before going out to Bayer Leverkusen, and despite putting up more of a fight in the league, a wobble in the second half of the campaign saw Celtic claim their ninth consecutive title.

    Rangers fans everywhere wanted Gerrard to do everything he could to stop their great rivals from making it 10 in a row, and despite none of them being able to witness it thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Gerrard and his players did just that.

    They had done it emphatically as well, going undefeated and collecting 102 points to win the Premiership, averaging 2.42 goals for per game, and just 0.34 goals against across their 38 league matches.

    Full circle

    It felt like Rangers were ready to take the next step, and many assumed that was by getting back into the group stage of the Champions League in 2021-22.

    However, those plans were scuppered as they were beaten home and away by Malmo in qualifying, so back to the Europa League it was.

    After losing their first two group games to Lyon and Sparta Prague without scoring, few will have had any hopes about making it to the knockout round playoffs, let alone where they ended up.

    Home wins against Brondby and Sparta as well as away draws with Brondby and Lyon saw them advance a point ahead of the Czech side, though they were given a daunting tie against Borussia Dortmund.

    On top of that, Gerrard had left for Aston Villa in November, with former player Giovanni van Bronckhorst taking over.

    A stunning effort in Signal Iduna Park saw them win 4-2, before completing the job with a 2-2 draw back at Ibrox.

    Hard-fought aggregate victories against Red Star Belgrade and Braga sent them to the semi-finals, and a date with more Bundesliga opposition, the very same they had lost convincingly to in that 2017 friendly.

    Leipzig will have been wondering how they only won 1-0 at Red Bull Arena in the first leg, but Ibrox was a different matter, with a raucous crowd again cheering Rangers to a famous 3-1 win, and their first European final since 2008.

    The second leg came nine years and one day after beating Berwick Rangers 1-0 at Ibrox in their final game in the third division.

    It has been quite a ride since Manchester in 2008. Whatever happens in Seville, it is not always about the destination. It's about the journey.

  • Sounders kick-start MLS season, Buksa strikes twice in entertaining New England draw Sounders kick-start MLS season, Buksa strikes twice in entertaining New England draw

    The Seattle Sounders claimed a vital win to kick-start their MLS season, springing to life in the second half to defeat Minnesota United 3-1 at home.

    Goals from Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan handed the Sounders a critical three points, after winning two of their opening eight games in the league.

    Despite the majority of possession in the opening 45 minutes, they went into the interval down 1-0 after Robin Lod scored in the 34th minute.

    The recent CONCACAF Champions League winners were then awarded a penalty which Raul Ruidiaz converted in the 50th minute and they snatched the lead with a long-range blast from Cristian Roldan in the 74th.

    Lodeiro sealed the victory for the Sounders in fourth minute of stoppage time, getting on the end of Roldan's incisive cross.

    Following wins for the Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo, the Sounders needed the three points and remain five points from the Western Conference's last playoff spot in 11th.

    After a back-and-forth contest where both sides had the lead, meanwhile, Atlanta United and the New England Revolution drew 2-2 in Sunday's MLS action.

    It was Atlanta who jumped ahead early through Thiago Almada's terrific strike from outside the box 15 minutes in, before Adam Buksa equalised for New England 15 minutes later from a tough angle.

    Buksa put New England in front with his second goal, coming 10 minutes into the second half, but it would be short-lived as Atlanta's Luiz Araujo equalised eight minutes later, tying things up in the 63rd minute.

    There would be another pair of golden chances down the stretch, as Buksa blew his chance at a hat trick in the 83rd minute as he missed from inside the six-yard box, before Araujo missed almost an identical chance down the other end less than a minute later.

    The action-packed spectacle featured a combined 40 shots, with Atlanta the more hard-done-by of the two sides, finishing with 26 shots to New England's 14, and 1.81 expected goals to New England's 1.12.

    With the draw, Atlanta held on to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, while New England is down in 11th.

  • Inzaghi says anything can happen after Inter take Scudetto race to the wire Inzaghi says anything can happen after Inter take Scudetto race to the wire

    Simone Inzaghi said Inter still believe they can retain the Scudetto after Lautaro Martinez's brace helped the Nerazzurri beat Cagliari and take the Serie A title race to the wire.

    After watching Milan beat Atalanta 2-0 at San Siro, the Nerazzurri had to win in Sardinia to avoid ceding their domestic crown to their rivals, but Martinez followed up Matteo Darmian's opener with a second-half double as Inter claimed a hard-fought 3-1 win to keep their hopes intact.

    Inter have now won seven of their past eight league games, but must beat Sampdoria and hope Sassuolo defeat the Rossoneri on the final day to win their 20th top-flight title.

    Inzaghi won one Serie A title during his playing career, scoring when Sven Goran Eriksson's Lazio claimed a dramatic title triumph on the final day of the 1999-00 season, beating Reggina 3-0 to overturn a two-point deficit to Juventus, who lost 1-0 to Perugia. 

    The former striker says that success is proof that anything can happen on the final day, and praised his team for putting in a composed performance just days after beating Juventus to win the Coppa Italia.

    "There is still one game missing, the team believes in it. We know that it has already happened, it has already happened to me," Inzaghi told his post-match press conference.

    "We believe in it until the end, and we will prepare it in the best possible way. Today we had a very good game two days after celebrating a trophy. In front of us we had a Cagliari team that was playing for survival and nothing was taken for granted, but I have a great team. 

    "I won a Scudetto against Lazio that I was two points behind [with one game left] and Juve lost to Perugia on the last day. In football you must never give up, we have always shown it."

    Inter's win means they have taken 39 points from their 19 away games in Serie A this season, the same amount they earned when winning the title under Antonio Conte last term.

    This represents the Nerazzurri's joint-third best away return in a single Serie A season (in the era of three points for a win), after they took 49 points in 2006-07 and 43 in 2019-20.

    Speaking to DAZN in the immediate aftermath of the win, Inzaghi had also heaped praise on two-goal hero Martinez after his match-winning performance.

    "I think he's got 25 goals this year. He has scored 13 goals in his last 13. The team put him in a position to score, he is a champion, he is very important for us and the team," he said.

    "He was good because even in the period in which he was unable to score, he worked hard, and now you can see the results."

    Martinez's tally of 25 goals in all competitions this season is at least eight better than any other Nerazzurri player (Edin Dzeko is second with 17), and the Argentine has become just the sixth Inter player to hit 20 goals in a Serie A season before turning 25 years of age, after Giuseppe Meazza, Sandro Mazzola, Antonio Angelillo, Ronaldo and Mauro Icardi. 

    While the striker acknowledged Inter had dropped points in games they should have won this season, he too holds out hope of a dramatic final-day triumph next Sunday.

    "We have lost points in matches in which we have done well, but in every competition we have played good football and done the work we wanted," the striker told DAZN.

    "The points lost are behind us, now there is one last home game with our fans, and we have to finish the championship in the best way."

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