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Joao Felix has yet to win against Real Madrid. Will this weekend’s Clasico change that?

Joao Felix has yet to win against Real Madrid. Will this weekend’s Clasico change that?

One of the hallmarks of Xavi’s coaching era at Barcelona is that he’s consistently managed to parlay preseason Clasico victories in the USA into subsequently defeating Real Madrid when it really counts. Meanwhile, one of the key blemishes on João Félix‘s career is that his miserable record against Los Blancos is precisely the opposite.

The crown prince of Portuguese football, this week being touted during the countdown to the Clasico as some kind of cut-price Blaugrana messiah — three goals and four assists in nine matches since joining Barcelona on loan have sparked such disproportionate excitement — has faced Madrid eight times competitively, more than any other opponents. And he’s never tasted victory.

Initially, he must have thought Real Madrid were soft-touches and that his destiny, having arrived in LaLiga in summer 2019, was to lord it over his new club’s rivals.

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When Atletico Madrid‘s record-breaking financial folly brought Félix from Benfica for a monstrous €128m, his introduction to the rivalry with Madrid came during a summer “friendly” at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. In less than a minute, he set Diego Costa up to score before adding a peach of a goal seven minutes later. Atleti, very much dancing to a Portuguese beat, were 5-0 up by half-time! It finished 7-3 to Los Colchoneros, Félix bagged two assists along with his goal, and even if one team played flat-out and the other were just flat, Los Blancos were humiliated.

Spain’s dominant football paper, Marca, reported that “A genius was born in New Jersey. Joao Félix has almost too much football in his boots: this kid’s touched by genius!” So much for that.

From referee Ted Unkel’s final whistle that day until kick off on Saturday (Stream LIVE: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, 10 a.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S.)) in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium high on Montjuic Hill, where Barca are playing during the Spotify Camp Nou rebuild, it’s been nothing but outright humiliation against Madrid for this talented and interesting, though incomplete, playmaker. Although he’s been impactful — even diligent — since Xavi found a place for him in the starting XI of the reigning Spanish champions, the sight of Vinícius Júnior, Toni Kroos, Fede Valverde and Co. pulling up should send shivers of fearful anticipation down Félix’s spine.

Since giving them a football lesson in East Rutherford just over four years ago, everything’s gone south.

Félix has played Real Madrid eight times in total for both Atletico and Chelsea. His record: zero wins, two draws and six defeats, with not one goal or assist. Almost as distressing for the 23-year-old is that not once has he played the entire match against Real Madrid, instead starting from the bench three times and being withdrawn in the other encounters.

The most pungent of Félix’s experiences against Madrid, whether coached by Carlo Ancelotti or Zinedine Zidane, were when he lost his first final as a Rojiblanco — the 2020 Spanish Supercup, defeated 4-1 on penalties — and then when Madrid routed Frank Lampard’s Chelsea 4-0 on aggregate in the Champions League quarterfinal, while Félix was there on a half-season loan.

In short, Félix has gone from looking like he was taking candy from a baby during that first exhibition game in the U.S. to being treated like a brat thereafter. Perhaps Xavi & Co. should be looking for another kind of “saviour” in this first Clasico of the season? Madrid hold a slender one-point lead over the defending LaLiga champions as they prepare to tussle in a stadium where Barca have known nothing but wins since moving there in August.

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This Saturday’s Clasico isn’t a derby in the strictest sense of the word, but it boasts all the eternal elements of one. For example, it includes the idea that whatever’s gone before counts for nothing in the maelstrom and madness once these two gigantic — and gigantically proud — clubs lock antlers and rut as if there’s no tomorrow. Perhaps this fact should be a positive for Félix, as his priors against Madrid might well become irrelevant.

Barcelona are noticeably weakened ahead of the game. Even if two or three of their much-missed stars on the injury list (Robert Lewandowski, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri) make it back to swell the ranks on Montjuic mountain, they’d still be significantly short of match-practice. Nevertheless, Xavi’s time in charge, which is just short of two calendar years, has been marked by coaching a squad that will fight, scrap, argue, cling on and then win in circumstances where, in recent years, previous Barca teams would have lost instead.

Around him, for the first time since 2019, Félix has teammates who are genuinely accustomed to beating Madrid and whose recent win record — notwithstanding the absolute smashing they took when Madrid last visited Barcelona, losing 4-0 at Camp Nou last April in the Copa del Rey — is actually top-class. By which I mean to suggest that while it’s daft to be building up an inconsistent, somewhat self-focused playmaker into the guy who’s either “rescuing” Barcelona’s season or will single-handedly turn this Clasico in favour of the Blaugrana, he’s nevertheless an interesting part of a unit that can be competitive and can win — a unit that could help free him from his pathetic record against men in white shirts.

I’ll say another thing in Félix’s favour just in case you think I’m being snippy about him. That remarkable summer friendly in the Jets/Giants’ stadium is not Joao’s only jolly time against Madrid. In fact, when he was the star of Benfica’s youth team, The Eagles drew Guti’s Madrid in the UEFA Youth League, a tournament designed to be the junior version of the Champions League. It ended with a comprehensive Benfica win for a side also starring Manchester City‘s towering centre-half, Rúben Dias — Félix scored twice, including a cheeky back-heeled goal four minutes after kick off.

On the losing side in Nyon, Switzerland in that junior semifinal back in 2017 was a red-cheeked, hard running Uruguayan by the name of Fede Valverde. The same Valverde who’s gone on to play significant roles in the eight times, on a senior competitive level, where Félix has failed to put a dent in, never mind defeat, Real Madrid since.

Valverde, who’s so adored by Madridistas and is so vital for his immense ability to match endless running with boundless imagination, creativity and fierce long-distance shooting, possesses a notable Clasico record.

Just like Félix has faced Madrid more than any other club opponent, the 25-year-old from Montevideo — nicknamed “Little Hawk” — has gone toe-to-toe with Barcelona in 15 Clasicos, winning seven, drawing one, losing seven and tucking the ball past Marc-André ter Stegen or Neto three times. (In fact, Madrid win whenever he scores against Barca.)

The significance here — over and above Valverde typifying the kind of mentality, grit, will-to-win and stamina Félix will need to approximate this weekend and in coming seasons if he’s to match the Uruguayan’s achievements — is that Félix tends to play off Barcelona’s left wing and Valverde, more often than not, plays down Madrid’s right. There has been a successful Uruguayan “seek-and-destroy” mission in many recent Clasicos, with Ronald Araújo often managing to frustrate Vinicius sufficiently for Barcelona to edge these unpredictable, explosive and entertaining contests.

Will Xavi deploy that tactic this weekend and move Araujo to right-back, given that João Cancelo has been performing with honours in that position? Possibly not, which leaves the way clear for Carlo Ancelotti to copy the idea, deploying Valverde and his “you’ll never beat me” mentality to not only shut down the gradually blossoming skills Félix is showing, but then pose the question to Barcelona’s No.14: “Can you keep up with me? Can you stop me causing mayhem around Barcelona’s penalty area?”

If you were Madrid’s wily Italian manager, isn’t that precisely the tactic you’d use to try and ensure that Félix continues to have fear and loathing for Los Blancos after Saturday?

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Graham Hunter

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