La Liga

Lewandowski interview: Striker on Barca, El Clasico and midnight chats with Klopp

Robert Lewandowski swapped perennial winners Bayern Munich for crisis club Barcelona last summer. After winning 10 Bundesliga titles (two for Borussia Dortmund, then eight at Bayern), the Poland striker wanted a new challenge. He wanted to help take Barca back to the top of Spanish and European football.

Domestically, things are going well. His 15 goals in 21 appearances have helped Barca build a nine-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga heading into Sunday’s Clasico. He also scored in the Supercopa triumph over the same opponents in January.

How Ronald Araujo became one of Barcelona's most important players

In the summer of 2018, two South American teenagers arrived in Spain with wildly different expectations. Vinicius Jr. had been the subject of a headline-grabbing transfer tug-of-war between Real Madrid and Barcelona, eventually joining the former in a deal worth around €46 million. Both clubs also tried to sign Ronald Araujo, although no one really knew about it — or him — at the time.

Barca landed the Uruguayan defender for an initial €1.7m, rising to over €4m, and he slotted into their reserve team in the Spanish third division. Five years later, Araujo is making a case to be considered among the best defenders in the world and his battles with Vinicius have characterised recent Clasicos.

In a move previously reserved for Madrid when seeking ways to keep Lionel Messi quiet, Barca coach Xavi Hernandez has deployed Araujo in a special “anti-Vinicius” role. Araujo is a centre-back except against Madrid, when he shifts across to right-back.

Xavi’s tactical tweak has had great success. Araujo has played in three of the past four Clasicos, and Barca have won those matches with an aggregate score of 8-1. Araujo even scored one of the goals. The one game Araujo missed through injury, last October’s LaLiga fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barca lost 3-1.

It’s worth noting, too, that keeping Vinicius quiet on Madrid’s left flank is no easy feat. The Brazilian has scored 19 goals across 39 appearances in all competitions this season, with a per-90 xG of 0.44. Araujo, though, has proved to be his kryptonite: Vinicius’ combined xG in their past three meetings is 0.19.

It’s not just Vinicius whom Araujo is keeping quiet, either: he is shutting out most teams. Of the 30 goals Barca have conceded this season, only 11 have come with Araujo on the pitch, and it’s no coincidence their early Champions League exit coincided with him being injured.

People at the club are championing him as the best defender in the world right now. On Sunday, in the second of three Clasicos in a month, he has another chance to show why.