BARCELONA, Spain (AP): The indisputable success of Real Madrid and its record 14 European Cups have left its critics with scant arguments to question its legacy.
Yet in Spain, where Barcelona boasts its characteristic possession-based passing game, Madrid is often scrutinized for supposedly winning without wowing, for not producing the choral beauty of a Barcelona, or the high-octane attack of other European powers like, for example, Liverpool.
Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s laid-back Italian coach, couldn’t care less, however. When asked recently to define his team’s playing style, he said that it did not have one.
And he liked it that way.
After all, Madrid showed last season in its incredible march to the Champions League title a chameleon-like ease to find multiple ways to produce goals with time running down and its opponents apparently in control round after round before it beat Liverpool in the final.
“They said (we didn’t have style) when we won the Champions League last year. (But) We play soccer well,” Ancelotti said. “Real Madrid does not have a clear soccer identity for the simple reason that I don’t want it to have one. I want a team that knows how to do many things.”
Madrid on Saturday will again have to adapt to a team whose identity is set it stone.
Osasuna, a modest club based in the northern city of Pamplona, is happy to relinquish the ball. It plays for the counterattack, either after it pressures to recover the ball near the opposing area, or when it sits back to open space for strikers like Chimy Ávila, an Argentine who leads the team with eight goals this season.
That commitment to a tried-and-tested style often lets Osasuna overcome the talent gap it has with top teams like Madrid and give them a real test, especially at its raucous El Sadar Stadium, which despite holding only 23,000 fans often sounds like many more.
Osasuna’s budget for players and staff salaries is 52 million euros ($55 million), compared to 683 million euros ($731 million) for Madrid, the defending Spanish and European champion.
Madrid will likely need to win to ensure that Barcelona does not add to its eight-point lead at the top of the Spanish league standings.
After struggling recently, Madrid has won three straight, including two games to claim the Club World Cup and a 4-0 rout of last-place Elche on Wednesday.
The Osasuna game starts a demanding stretch for Madrid. Three days later, Madrid heads to Anfield to face Liverpool in the round of 16 of the Champions League. After that trip to England, Madrid will play Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league and Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinals.
“We’re taking advantage of all these games to improve each player’s fitness,” Ancelotti said after his team’s win over Elche. “It’s obvious the team is getting better and playing matches helps you to fine-tune their condition.”
Vinícius Júnior, who leads Madrid with 16 goals overall this season, will be available after missing the match against Elche because of suspension.
Jagoba Arrasate has coached Osasuna since 2018 and has the team playing its best in years. It fought back for a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu when it visited Madrid in October. It had risen as high as fourth place this season, even if now it has slid into ninth place as it gears up to play Athletic Bilbao in the other Copa del Rey semifinal match.
Osasuna is also led by holding midfielder Jon Moncayola and central defender David García, who is expected back after missing one game with illness.
Barcelona hosts Cadiz on Sunday amid a media uproar regarding its payment of 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million) between 2016-18 for technical reports on referees to a company that belonged to the vice president of the refereeing committee in Spain at that time. The club denies any wrongdoing.
Third-place Real Sociedad plays Celta Vigo on Saturday, while fourth-place Atletico Madrid welcomes Bilbao on Sunday.