As far as opening the new 2011-12 Spanish football season goes, there could be nothing more fitting than having the two teams that dominated 2010-11 face off in a two-legged affair.
Real Madrid and Barcelona were last season’s top two League sides from Weeks 9 to 38 and were the Copa del Rey finalists and Champions League semi-finalists. They were also the teams with the top two individuals in the game, as both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi netted a historic 53 goals each.
The gap is a growing concern in the League. Sevilla’s President Jose Maria del Nido is often heard referring to the imbalanced television rights package as handing a financial advantage others in the League cannot compete with, whilst Valencia’s President Manuel Llorente spoke this week of the two teams’ superiority stretching beyond Spain, and into Europe.
As much as the gulf between the big two and everyone else is again set to be accentuated in this two-legged affair and stretching into the new campaign, the duel between the respective clubs will still pull in the audience, such is the fascination behind it. Such is Barcelona’s growing appeal in the way they have won 10 of the 13 trophies competed for under Pep Guardiola, and such is Jose Mourinho’s growing strength at Real Madrid in their new-found attempts to match that, that the teams’ urgency to be better than each other is feeding a competition unlike that seen before, and one that seemingly still has room to grow.
Whether the rivalry is beyond the realms of healthy competition when considering the other 18 La Liga clubs – and the financial strains some have put themselves under in recent seasons in an attempt to not be eclipsed by Real and Barca – the work the big two have undergone this summer has seen new energy arrive.
Barcelona welcome promising youngsters Andreu Fontas and Thiago Alcantara from the B team, the club’s first Chilean in the form of the blistering Alexis Sanchez, and the long-awaited home-coming of former La Masia youngster Cesc Fabregas.
Real Madrid match that with a summer of fierce, fast transfer work – including bringing in the Bundesliga’s best player Nuri Sahin, and Portugal’s most-promising versatile winger Fabio Coentrao. That is also significantly followed up with substantial behind-the-scenes rearrangement to give Mourinho not only the two players for every position he asks for on the pitch, but also the type of responsibility and influence off the pitch more than both Chelsea and Inter were willing to hand him.
There are elements to this rivalry to come, and are extensions to the debate over its worth in relation to the rest of the League. However, as the Supercopa promises, it remains a meeting between two of Europe’s biggest teams that few will be able to avoid, for good or for bad.
Sergio Ramos misses out for Real Madrid having suffered a recurrence of a back problem in the team’s final pre-season game in China. Mystery still surrounds Sahin’s continued struggles with injury, whilst Sami Khedira, Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Esteban Granero have all missed chunks of pre-season through injury. However, Khedira was rested for Germany’s midweek fixture, as was Mesut Ozil, and both are expected to face Barca, as is Alonso and Pepe.
Ozil, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are expected to take three of the four attacking slots in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, having netted 17 of the team’s 27 pre-season goals between them; the fourth position is between Angel Di Maria and Coentrao, but in light of Ramos’ absence, both may find themselves in the first XI.
Meanwhile, for Barcelona, Xavi Hernandez took part in full training at the end of the week, suggesting a recovery from a calf injury that had ruled him out of Spain’s midweek fixture with Italy. Gerard Pique is also understood to be fit enough to start against Los Blancos, despite being forced off with a muscle strain in Bari on Wednesday.
However, Sergio Busquets is a doubt, having picked up an injury against the Azzurri in the final stages, and been forced to since sit out training. Uncertainty surrounds Messi’s involvement, with the Argentine having yet to take part in a pre-season game after training separately this summer, but Guardiola has hinted most recently at playing the No 10. Five B team players have been working with the senior squad in preparation.
Guardiola has interestingly changed the team’s travel plans for the first away game of the season. Where previously preferring to always travel on the day of the game, his men instead arrive the day before Sunday evening’s game at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Arbeloa, Pepe, Carvalho, Marcelo; Alonso, Khedira; Coentrao, Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal; Xavi, Mascherano, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa
Did you know…Real Madrid and Barcelona have met four times before in the Supercopa de Espana’s current format, with Los Merengues having won all previous contests – 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997 – and interestingly having never failed to score at the Camp Nou.