WARSAW (Reuters) – Real Madrid will focus on sealing a place in the Champions League knockout stage with a win against Shakhtar Donetsk in Warsaw on Tuesday and striker Karim Benzema will be back in the team to help, coach Carlo Ancelotti said
Real Madrid are top of Group F on a maximum nine points from three games and a win against second-placed Shakhtar — on five points — will take them into the knockout phase.
“Qualifying from the group stage is the first goal of the season because it comes very early, very fast and the sooner we do it, the better,” Ancelotti told a news conference on Monday.
“Clearly, mentally, this can give you more energy for the (Spanish league). But we also have to keep in mind that Real Madrid in the Champions League can’t think about not playing a serious match.”
The Italian coach confirmed there would be changes to his team ahead of ‘El Clasico’ against rivals Barcelona on Sunday.
While Ancelotti said he may rest forward Vinicius Jr., who scored in their 2-1 win over Shakhtar in Madrid and has played a lot recently, Benzema will return after being given a rest in the 1-0 win at Getafe on Saturday in LaLiga.
“Karim is fine. It’s quite clear that tomorrow he will start the game. He’s going to play because he’s rested — like (Toni) Kroos, (Ferland) Mendy, they’re fresh to play,” Ancelotti said.
Frenchman Benzema, who suffered two thigh injuries early in September, played the full 90 minutes against Osasuna and Shakhtar but had muscle fatigue so did not play at Getafe.
In Warsaw, where Shakhtar are hosting their Champions League matches due to the war in Ukraine, Real will still be without first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois so Ukraine’s Andriy Lunin will continue to deputise.
The Belgian is set to return to training on Thursday, however, and should be ready to face Barca, Ancelotti said.
“(Lunin) is young, has a lot of quality, these games will help him to accumulate experience and knowledge — which are the only thing he lacks at the moment because his quality in goal is the quality of a great goalkeeper,” Ancelotti added.
Asked how the 23-year-old Lunin was coping with news from Ukraine about the war, which Russia calls a ‘special military operation’, Real’s coach said both himself and the team were there to support him.
“Andriy is quite shy, he is not a person who talks too much. It is normal that everything that is happening affects him, as it affects everyone,” Ancelotti said.
“We are in solidarity with them (Shakhtar) and we have a lot of respect for them,” he added.
“To play with these kind of difficulties means a lot to them, to give a good image of a Ukrainian team that is suffering like the whole Ukrainian population”.
(This story has been corrected to fix the name of the player in paragraph 8.)
(Reporting by Anita Kobylinska in Warsaw; Editing by Ken Ferris)