Karim Benzema will not be fit to return for Real Madrid's clash with Granada on Sunday, while head coach Carlo Ancelotti insists he has no personal issue with Eden Hazard.

LaLiga top scorer Benzema missed the midweek Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao with a hamstring complaint.

He was pictured training on Friday, but the France striker will once again miss out for the league leaders, who are without Vinicius Jr through suspension..

"Benzema won't play. He's improved, but he's not 100 per cent yet. He trained yesterday but not today, we've got to wait two or three more days," head coach Ancelotti told a pre-match news conference.

"The team are ready, we know Vinicius and Karim are both out."

Ancelotti acknowledged the importance of Benzema to his team but dismissed the notion Madrid are overly reliant on their talisman.

"Of course we're missing Benzema, he's the top scorer in the league, scoring lots of goals this season for Real Madrid," Ancelotti said.

"I think you look at teams and their Benzemas [star player], if they miss that player of course it's a big loss, it's a blow. 

"Without Benzema it's tougher, but without Benzema we've won games. I think we've done well without Karim Benzema."

Hazard's form has flattered to deceive since joining in a big-money move from Chelsea in 2019, though a star turn in a 2-1 win at Athletic back in December prompted praise from Ancelotti.

Since then, though, minutes have been hard to come by for the Belgium forward, who was an unused substitute for the Copa setback.

Asked about Hazard, Ancelotti replied: "There's no issues between myself and the player, he's training, he's now fit.

"But then I have to decide who I think is the best team. But I just preferred a different player. Hazard played against Elche [in the previous round of the Copa], scored after he came on, it's not as if he's not playing. He has been playing.

"There's not a personal issue with him, there's not a physical issue either, there's no issue we're not sharing about Hazard. No secrets."

Team-mate Gareth Bale was also not utilised in the Copa fixture and was filmed seemingly chuckling when Hazard was told to sit back down with 18 minutes remaining having gone out to warm up.

Ancelotti said he did not see the incident.

"I didn't see it, I don't know why he laughed, and it doesn't seem important to me," the Italian said.

"We wanted to put Hazard on in extra time and that's why he warmed up. Three players have to warm up, that's the maximum. I wanted my players warming up, taking turns, I couldn't send six players to warm up."

Madrid's Copa exit followed a come-from-behind 2-2 draw against Elche in LaLiga last week, with Los Blancos enduring a dip in form.

Ancelotti, though, says he has no issue with any criticism that comes his way.

"I'm not hurt, I'm used to this, to living these moments. It's a confirmation that I'm the coach of Real Madrid and you always have to make decisions, and sometimes you're right and you're wrong. Nothing new," he said.

"I'm so happy that I'm manager here, I don't mind criticism. It keeps me on my toes. It also makes you think things through a bit more."

Carlo Ancelotti admitted Real Madrid missed the quality of Karim Benzema as he claimed their Copa del Rey exit to Athletic Bilbao was not a surprise.

The LaLiga leaders were beaten 1-0 at San Mames on Thursday, Alex Berenguer scoring a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Athletic into the semi-finals.

It was a measure of revenge for Marcelino's men, who lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana final to Madrid last month, in which Benzema scored the second goal.

Los Blancos were without their talisman in the Basque country, though, as he had not recovered from a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-2 draw with Elche.

In the absence of Benzema, who has scored 24 goals in 28 appearances this season, Madrid managed just two shots on target against Athletic, while their first-half expected goals figure of 0.1 was their lowest since January 2020.

Ancelotti accepted the decision not to rush Benzema back into action left his side without enough of a threat going forward.

 

"We're hurt because we want to win everything. I don't think it will have consequences. I only hope that it makes us stronger," he said of the defeat, as quoted by Marca.

"We don't have players of Karim's quality. We didn't change the plan. We tried to play from the back, and we couldn't. Athletic's pressing was really great until the 70th minute.

"I think in extra time we would have had the advantage, but they scored in the last minute. We played too much on the wings. We should have used [David] Alaba and Casemiro more. It didn't go the way we wanted.

"It's not the worst game of the season. It was even until the end. I'm not surprised with how the game went."

Even as Madrid's attack laboured, Ancelotti left Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic on the bench, his only changes being Isco for Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga for Vinicius Junior.

It was put to Ancelotti that the trio were being punished by being kept among the substitutes, but he replied: "I have nothing to say. Nobody is punished. [Dani] Ceballos and [Jesus] Vallejo didn't play, either. They're at the same level as the others who didn't play. You have to be fair.

"Kroos was taken off due to fatigue, as was Vinicius. We were thinking of changes for extra time and there wasn't time."

Madrid's next match is at home to Granada in LaLiga on Sunday.

Karim Benzema has been left out of Real Madrid's squad for the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. 

The fitness of France international Benzema has been a source of concern since he hobbled off in the second half of Madrid's 2-2 draw with Elche in LaLiga on January 23. 

During his pre-match news conference, Carlo Ancelotti was hopeful the striker, who has been in sensational form this season with 24 goals in 28 games in all competitions, would be fit for the trip to San Mames but insisted no risks would be taken. 

Benzema's name was not in the 22-man squad for the match against Athletic that was released later on Wednesday, prompting concerns about his fitness for the Champions League last-16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in less than two weeks. 

Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy also miss out through injury, while Marcelo is ineligible due to suspension. 

However, Marco Asensio could make his return from a hamstring injury sustained in the Supercopa de Espana success against Barcelona 

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has said Karim Benzema could be fit for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, but warned he will not be risked unnecessarily.

The France striker – who sustained a hamstring strain in the 2-2 draw with Elche on January 23 – will train with his team-mates on Wednesday, according to Ancelotti, but the coach said he will only play if he is at "100 per cent".

Benzema has been in excellent form for the LaLiga leaders, scoring 24 goals and assisting a further nine in 28 appearances in all competitions this season.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Thursday's game, Ancelotti said: "We don't know yet [if Benzema will play], because he's only been able to do individual work.

"He has good feelings, and now he is going to train with the group. At the end, we will make a decision. We're not going to risk it. If he has the medical discharge, he will play; if not, no."

Asked again about Benzema, Ancelotti reiterated: "The decision is simple. If he is well, he will play; if not, he will stay at home. If he is not 100 per cent, it makes no sense to put him in a game that is going to demand a lot from us."

The Italian also suggested his South American players may be able to play some part, despite only now returning from international duty after yesterday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.

Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo both played in Brazil's 4-0 win against Paraguay, with Casemiro an unused substitute, while Federico Valverde featured in Uruguay's 4-1 win against Venezuela. Eder Militao was allowed to return to Madrid by Brazil a few days early as he was suspended for the Paraguay game.

"We also have to assess the status of the players who have played with their national teams," Ancelotti added. "If they are just tired, they will travel. They may not start the game, but I may need them throughout the game, especially if we get to extra time.

"Vinicius and Rodrygo come back from playing, but they are 20 years old, not 60 like me. I think they can get back."

Madrid have faced Athletic three times already this season, twice in the league and once in the recent final of the Supercopa de Espana, with Los Blancos winning all three – including a 2-1 victory at San Mames just before the mid-season break.

"It's a very important match," Ancelotti added. "It's a competition in which we are very excited. It is a difficult match, against a strong opponent and a very difficult environment such as San Mames.

"We've played well the previous three games against them, but it will be a very close game. To win in San Mames, you have to get the best"

Ancelotti said he still did not know if he was going to start Thibaut Courtois or Andriy Lunin in goal, but a more pressing selection issue will be a left-back, with both Ferland Mendy and Marcelo unavailable.

"There are two options, [David] Alaba or Nacho," he said. "I've already decided, but I'm not going to say it.

"The evaluation does not depend on whether Nico Williams or [Alex] Berenguer plays. Nacho is more defensive and less used to it. Alaba gives us a lot of options with the ball and he's used to playing there."

Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) director Juninho has confirmed Brazil will not release Real Madrid players before the end of the international break.

South American teams are in World Cup qualifying action over the coming week, with FIFA having inserted an extra international window into this season's calendar to make up for time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil have already qualified for this year's World Cup in Qatar and sit top of the CONMEBOL standings on 35 points.

They face Ecuador on Thursday and Paraguay on February 1. 

Madrid, meanwhile, have a Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic on February 3.

Four Madrid players – Casemiro, Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior – have been called up for Brazil.

However, Juninho insisted that even if the players do not feature in each of Brazil's games, they will remain with the national team until February 2 when the international window ends, meaning there is little chance of Los Blancos having the quartet available for the trip to San Mames.

"We are not going to release the players," Juninho told Spanish radio show El Larguero.

"The players have to be with us until the end of the FIFA period, on February 2. Depending on how they play the first match [we will] discuss whether or not they play the second.

"They will be with us until the end. We are not willing to release them. We cannot set a precedent. We have had requests from other clubs.

"We have a few days with the players. We must take advantage of this year now that the preparation for the World Cup has begun."

Juninho stressed Brazil have turned down Madrid's requests on the grounds of fairness to other teams.

"We can't, it's not that we don't want to," he added.

"In Tite's management it has never happened. That is not the situation, we understand the situation of the clubs. It has happened because of the pandemic. Before, there was no January date. It is the situation that was forced on us.

"We have a very good relationship with the clubs. We always talk cordially. [Brazil coach] Tite has explained the situation to Ancelotti. 

"It was in a good tone. They understood our situation and I think they haven't had any problems."

Asked if Tite had discussed the issue with the players in question, Juninho said: "I guess Tite has talked to them and made the situation very clear.

"The October [2022] dates were cancelled and we only have a week to prepare for the World Cup [in November]. There is only one week for Tite to be with the players and see how they are. The clubs understand that.

"I also spoke with [Paris Saint-Germain director] Leonardo and the English clubs on other occasions with the same problems."

Carlo Ancelotti suggested "small details" cost Real Madrid in a 2-2 draw with Elche that required a spirited late recovery.

The LaLiga leaders missed the chance to move six points clear at the top of the table as they were held by their 15th-placed opponents, who took a surprise 2-0 lead at the Santiago Bernabeu.

After Luka Modric's penalty gave them hope – his first spot-kick for Madrid after Karim Benzema, who earlier missed from 12 yards for the first time in LaLiga, went off injured – it took a stoppage-time header from Eder Militao to spare Madrid's blushes and extend their year-long unbeaten home run in the Spanish top flight.

While Madrid were waiting to discover the extent of Benzema's injury, Ancelotti said he was disappointed with the manner in which Elche scored – netting twice away at Madrid for the first time since January 1989.

But the coach was at least encouraged by his team's response, remaining unbeaten against Elche since 1978, having now scored at least two in 10 of the 12 games in that span.

"They scored a goal with a centre. For the second goal, we could have been more compact," Ancelotti said. "They are small details that have cost us two points

"We are not happy, but there are many things we have to consider. 

"We conceded two goals and we reacted well. Usually these games are lost, but it speaks very well of the squad."

There are 11 days until Madrid return to action when they face Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, 12 days before taking on Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16.

"We have a small break, and we arrive well-positioned in all three competitions," Ancelotti added. "That's what we wanted to do. 

"We are there, now comes the most important period of the season."

Carlo Ancelotti says Eden Hazard is in his Real Madrid plans for next season as the Belgium star shows signs of finding form at last.

Hazard scored an extra-time winner to send Madrid into the Copa del Rey quarter-finals at Elche's expense this week, having assisted Marco Asensio in the 3-1 win at Alcoyano in his previous appearance.

It means the 31-year-old has been involved in as many goals in his past two games as he was in his previous 17, suggesting he is starting to find his feet at last in LaLiga.

Hazard has reportedly already rejected approaches to leave this month, including from Newcastle United, and Ancelotti seems keen to keep him for the longer term.

"Yes, he's in the planning for next season," the Madrid coach said ahead of Sunday's league game with Elche.

Asked if it might be a good day for Hazard to be in the starting line-up, Ancelotti replied: "Yes, it's a good day. Hopefully, it will be a good day."

 

Isco also got on the scoresheet against Elche to underline his value as another option for Ancelotti, while the Italian says Gareth Bale, who has not played for the club since August, is also close to a return.

"Isco doesn't have injuries, but Bale has been out for longer than Hazard. Each one is a different case," he said.

"Gareth is getting back to having a good physical condition, he's improving, he's starting to train every day with the team."

Dani Ceballos has also returned to the Madrid set-up after a long injury absence, playing three times this month, and Ancelotti hopes he will prove a useful player for the rest of the campaign.

"He's starting to be well, to improve his physical condition," he said. "I like him on a personal level, for his character, for his lack of fear in playing games and making plays.

"He'll certainly have an important role in the second part of the season."

Madrid head into the weekend with a four-point lead over Sevilla at the top of the table, while champions Atletico Madrid are 13 points adrift in fourth and Barcelona down in sixth.

Ancelotti accepts it is a surprise to see their biggest rivals struggling.

"Of course, we can talk about them, what two great teams, two great clubs are doing, and of course we're surprised they're having more difficulties than normal," he said.

"They're still both great rivals, with sufficient quality to get out of any complicated situation."

Carlo Ancelotti acknowledged Eden Hazard and Isco might have been frustrated by their restricted roles for Real Madrid but now hopes to rely on both moving forward. 

Hazard and Isco have started just 10 Madrid games between them in all competitions this season and were again on the bench for Thursday's Copa del Rey clash at Elche. 

Isco was introduced late in normal time with the game goalless, before Hazard came on as the tie headed into extra time. 

The pair did not have an immediate impact, as Marcelo was sent off and Gonzalo Verdu netted a deflected opener for Elche, but ultimately turned the match on its head. 

Isco touched in an equaliser before Hazard's first goal of the season sent Madrid through. 

A report last week claimed Madrid had accepted a bid from Newcastle United for Hazard, but it added the player rejected the move. He has now had two goal involvements in as many appearances – as many as in his previous 17. 

A delighted Ancelotti appears convinced, saying of the winger and Isco: "I knew that changes could give a boost to the team and they have given it. 

 

"[Hazard] and Isco have won the match. It has a meaning. It may be that they deserve to play more, but the past is the past and you have to look forward. 

"I know that I can count on them and on a squad that has everything, an extraordinary character and that fights against adversity and never gives up. 

"I'm very happy. I think it's the game that's given me the most happiness." 

Both men might expect to feature again in the quarter-finals of the Copa in a fortnight, when Madrid will be without a host of South American stars due to a short international break outside of a FIFA window. 

"Let's see if those who make the calendars wake up. It's nonsense," Ancelotti said of the issue. "It is inevitable, but it has to be changed. We have to make them fairer for everyone." 

Madrid are playing in the last eight for the fifth time in six seasons, although they have not won the trophy since 2013-14. Only twice this century have the Blancos lifted the Copa. 

Carlo Ancelotti has reaffirmed there is no problem with Eden Hazard, who is finding Real Madrid game time hard to come by.

Hazard was an unused substitute in both of Madrid's Supercopa de Espana matches last week in Saudi Araba, as Los Blancos went on to win their first trophy of Ancelotti's second spell in charge.

The former Chelsea star, who turned 31 earlier in January, has endured an injury hit time at Santiago Bernabeu since his big-money move in 2019.

While he has in the main avoided injuries so far this season, Hazard has only made eight starts across all competitions, with his game time totalling 724 minutes.

Hazard has only completed a game on one occasion this season, having been subbed off in his other seven starts, and he has only assisted on two occasions from 27 chances created, failing to score himself.

Per 90 minutes played, Hazard has had 66 touches, with eight in the opposition area.

Vinicius Jr, who has excelled on the left flank – Hazard's preferred position – under Ancelotti, averages nine touches in the area per 90 minutes played, and he has featured 28 times this season in total.

The Brazil international creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes and he has been directly involved in 22 goals (15 goals, seven assists), second only to Karim Benzema in Madrid's squad (33 – 24 goals, nine assists).

With such quality competition, Ancelotti explained it is natural for players to miss out, but insisted there is no issue between himself and Hazard.

"It is true that the two have had many setbacks due to injuries," Ancelotti told a news conference when asked about Hazard and Gareth Bale, who has played just 193 minutes across three appearances in 2021-22.

"Hazard has been doing well from a physical point of view for a month and a half. I don't have to advise Hazard, he has the character and the experience to choose the best for him.

 

"The quality of the two could have helped us more, but it's only been the first part of the season. Hopefully the second half can be better.

"Nothing strange has happened between us, simply that there is competition and the coach, which is me, has to choose the best for each game. I try to be fair and choose the best. Sometimes you are very good and you don't play. I'm also talking about Nacho, [Dani] Ceballos, Isco, [Luka] Jovic.

"Nothing has happened, only that there is competition in the team and I have to choose the best in each game. This affects many players, I can't deny it. Nothing has happened, he is training and waiting for the coach's call. I think he will be ready when it arrives."

Asked if Hazard might be moved out this month, Ancelotti said: "At the moment he is still a Madrid player, he is training, focused... We have nothing else to think about."

While Hazard did travel to Saudi Arabia for the Supercopa tournament, Bale instead remained in Madrid to work on his fitness, and Ancelotti said the Wales forward is available for Thursday's Copa del Rey meeting with Elche.

"He will be in the squad and all those who are have the chance to play from the beginning or as a sub. It can also happen that they don't play," the Italian added.

Thibaut Courtois will not be available due to a minor injury.

The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

Carlo Ancelotti scooped the first trophy of his second reign at Real Madrid and vowed his "ugly" team would go flat out to bring more silverware to the Santiago Bernabeu.

It had been 18 months since Madrid last won a title, the 2019-20 LaLiga crown in the pandemic-hit season that went into extra time, but a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final scratched that itch.

Last term under Zinedine Zidane proved a struggle at times, but there is more zip and panache to the Madrid that Ancelotti has fielded this season. He won four trophies in his first two-year spell at Madrid from 2013 to 2015, and obviously fancies several more this time around.

Madrid are front-runners in LaLiga, albeit with Sevilla in pursuit, they remain in the Copa del Rey and also have Champions League ambitions ahead of a tough last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain.

This trip to Saudi Arabia for the Supercopa should provide a timely lift for Madrid, heading into the business end of the season. Seeing off Barcelona in a testing semi-final was a boon, and Madrid controlled the final against Athletic until flagging in the closing stages.

"I am very pleased, happy, and we continue," Ancelotti said. "We are going to compete, but being here is lucky. It is an honour to train this team and this club. By the way, we are going to compete for the other competitions.

"We have the strength to fight for all competitions. This is a team I like to watch play. We don't have just one way of playing, but rather different ones and that is the strength of this team."

Ancelotti pointed out his personal trophy drought had also ended, after going without such success during spells with Napoli and Everton. It had been four and a half years since he last won any cup, which came at the tail end of his Bayern Munich tenure.

"I'm not tired of winning, because the last one was a [German] Super Cup with Bayern and I hadn't won for a long time," he said.

"Winning is the end of the job. Winning means you've done a good job. Sometimes it isn't. I've done a good job at Napoli or Everton and I haven't won anything."

Ancelotti spared a playful jibe for his team, who appear to have taken kindly to their Italian coach.

"When you win a lot, you think you're the most handsome, that you play the best football in the world and the sacrifice goes down a bit," Ancelotti said.

"Fortunately, the sacrifice of our players is high. I think my players are not handsome … they are very ugly."

Real Madrid secured the first trophy of Carlo Ancelotti's second spell as head coach by strolling to a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored as the LaLiga leaders proved far too strong for Athletic, who beat Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Benzema's goal was a second-half penalty and took him to 18 career goals against Athletic. They are the team against whom he has scored the most goals, and he was a threat throughout this one-sided game.

Even when Athletic were awarded a late spot-kick themselves, with Eder Militao sent off for handling Raul Garcia's header, they could not take advantage. Garcia's penalty carried plenty of punch, but Thibaut Courtois saved with his legs.

Ancelotti was a Champions League winner during his first stint with Madrid, and the experienced Italian will hope this success in Riyadh proves to be the first of many trophies second time around.

Madrid had a string of early half-chances, with Benzema, Toni Kroos and Modric among those who could not capitalise.

Casemiro then threatened twice in quick succession, forcing Unai Simon to tip an ambitious long-range strike wide for a corner, before a looping header from the midfielder was touched over the bar by the goalkeeper.

Modric made the breakthrough in the 38th minute. Rodrygo dribbled into the Athletic penalty area from the right flank before laying off the ball sensibly to his veteran team-mate, and from 17 yards the Croatian swept an elegant shot high into the right corner.

Madrid were awarded a penalty after a VAR check in the 51st minute when Benzema's shot struck Yeray Alvarez on the arm. Benzema powered the spot-kick into the left corner and Madrid looked home and hosed, having barely faced any pressure from Athletic, who won this competition last year.

The 89th-minute penalty could have made for a nervy finish, but Courtois came to Madrid's rescue.

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has said he is "very excited" to be leading Los Blancos into another final ahead of Sunday's Supercopa de Espana clash with Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia.

The LaLiga leaders progressed after a hard-fought 3-2 win against Barcelona on Wednesday, with substitute Federico Valverde hitting an extra-time winner.

Athletic overcame Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the other semi-final on Thursday, and Ancelotti has admitted he will have to change his tactics for Marcelino's men on Sunday.

"I'm extremely happy to be experiencing this period, I'm very excited," he told reporters in a news conference. 

"Being back in a final again is special and even more so when it's at the helm of Real Madrid. This team is used to these types of games and these moments."

The two teams played each other twice in December in LaLiga, with Madrid emerging victorious on both occasions, 1-0 at the Bernabeu and 2-1 at San Mames.

"We have to analyse the opposition," Ancelotti added. "We know each other very well because we have played twice in a month, once in Madrid and once in Bilbao. It's going to be a very hard-fought match, just like the others were.

"Athletic have a range of attributes, including a solid defence, organisation, pace up top, quality on set pieces... We have to bear that in mind. Our approach will be different to the semi-final because Athletic have different characteristics to Barcelona."

The former Chelsea and Everton manager also addressed a question about his team's style of play and he was keen to dismiss the idea that there is a defined approach that guarantees success.

"I respect everyone, every facet of football is to be respected," he added. "There's not some magic approach which guarantees you'll win. The perfect system doesn't exist. 

"You don't win every time because you play with the ball, or on the counter. A game can be won on set-pieces too. If we play defensively one day, it doesn't mean we're a defensive team. We've scored more goals than any other team in LaLiga."

Ancelotti also had words of praise for Karim Benzema, who scored Madrid's second on Wednesday and has plundered 23 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions this season, as well as registering nine assists.

"He hasn't changed, he's as humble as ever," his manager said. 

"What's changed is how others are seeing him. They're looking to him more as a leader. I think people look at him differently to how they did six years ago."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti said his players were "tired, but very happy" following their dramatic 3-2 Supercopa de Espana win over Barcelona.

Los Blancos advanced to the final after prevailing in a thrilling encounter at the King Fahd Stadium on Wednesday.

Madrid were twice pegged back, so the contest went into extra-time as strikes from Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema were cancelled out by Luuk de Jong and Ansu Fati. 

But Ancelotti's side edged their noses back in front through substitute Federico Valverde in the 98th minute, claiming their fifth successive win over Barca.

And the Italian saluted the efforts of his players, who must prepare to do battle against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao in Sunday's final.

"I have to be honest, Barcelona played a good game," he told Movistar.

"I don't think Barcelona dominated us, they controlled the ball; we were very effective on the counter. It was an entertaining game.

"There was a good atmosphere in the stands and although it is not the most important title, it was an important game.

"The physical and mental effort was very big, but we held up well until the end. The changes helped; we are tired, but very happy. 

"The important thing is to be in the final, not the rival."

Carlo Ancelotti insisted Real Madrid are not favourites to beat Barcelona in the Supercopa de Espana and would be worried if his players thought otherwise.

Wednesday's Clasico in Riyadh will determine who will face either Athletic Bilbao or Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa final on Sunday.

Madrid were 2-1 winners at Camp Nou in the previous meeting in LaLiga in October, and the gap between the sides has only widened since.

Los Blancos sit top of the league table after 21 matches, with Barca in sixth, 17 points behind their great rivals.

Ancelotti, though, thinks that will count for little with a place in the final up for grabs.

"I'd be worried if the players thought we were favourites, but they don't think that. They think we have to do everything to win," the Madrid coach said on Tuesday.

"These games are always balanced, however much of a gap there is in the table, just as the league game was balanced.

"When you play a game, you can win, draw or lose. The game will choose a winner. We have to play at our best level. We play against a team who are strong and who have the same objective, which is to reach the final."

 

This will be Xavi's first Clasico as Barca coach, the former Blaugrana midfielder having taken over from Ronald Koeman just two weeks after the 2-1 home defeat.

Although Xavi has earned praise for his use of young players and for striving to restore a typical style to Barca's play, results have been disappointing, with the Catalans having won only five of 11 matches since his appointment.

Still, Ancelotti believes they are showing signs of progress in their performances.

"I like them because they're a team with an identity, in the way Barca always have. I think they're a team who are going to improve with [Xavi's] contribution," he said.

"They have experienced players like [Sergio] Busquets, [Gerard] Pique or [Jordi] Alba, who always give a lot to the team. But the youngsters they're pushing forward stand out a lot, like Gavi or Nico, who can have a great future."

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