Real Madrid’s 3-1 win away against FC Barcelona in the first leg of the Spanish Supercup on Sunday night may have come a week before the new La Liga football season is due to kick off, but it offered a few pointers to some things we can expect over the coming campaign.
Real Madrid conquered the Camp Nou stadium through a combination of midfield discipline and explosive finishing and the win in what theoretically is the toughest place for them to visit, must see them established as favourites to retain their title, reports Xinhua news agency.
Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has a side which is able to dominate rivals in midfield, while punishing them in attack and although there may be some doubts about their defence, the discipline of players such as midfielders Casemiro, Luka Modric (who was suspended on Sunday), Tony Kroos and Mateo Kovacic means that defence is amply protected.
Add into the equation summer signings Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez, who were outstanding on loan at Alaves last season, along with Dani Ceballos, the MVP at the recent European Under-21 championships and Zidane has a wealth of talent to call on.
The coach showed last season he commands the respect of his players, which allows him to rotate his starting 11 without any major problems, and that in turn means his players arrive at key points of the season fresher than their rivals.
In attack, Cristiano Ronaldo may not cover the ground he once did, but is still a lethal finisher as he showed in Barcelona, Benzema may come in for criticism, but he is an intelligent player who links things together well with his companions and while Gareth Bale is still searching for his best form and position, he still has explosive pace to challenge any defender.
The ‘BBC’, as they are known, blew hot and cold last season and it was when Madrid switched to a 4-4-2 with Isco in the middle of the park that their season really took off. Isco is another creative genius Zidane can call on and he can expect much more game time this season, as can Marcos Asensio.
The young forward capped off Sunday’s win with a stunning goal and is swiftly challenging for a regular place in the starting 11. His emergence gives Madrid even more options and it can only be a matter of time before he is a regular for Spain.
Ernesto Valverde has replaced Luis Enrique as Barcelona head coach and the former Athletic Club Bilbao chief tactician on Sunday showed he is true to his and the Barcelona style of play. The first half in the Camp Nou saw Barcelona dominate possession and probe for a way through the Madrid back line using their traditional passing game.
However, it is obvious Barcelona have problems: the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain was a kick in the guts for the club; both in terms of loss of talent, but also in terms of confidence that as a club they are now vulnerable.
It is true they are looking for new signings with Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele the targets, but it is also true that they are going to have to pay somewhere near $300 million for the pair as both Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund exploit both Barcelona’s need and the money from the Neymar sale to the full.
Elsewhere Andres Iniesta, so often vital to Barcelona’s success, is now 33 and starting to show his age, while others such as Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are now in their tenth season with the first team.
Fringe players such as Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer last season failed to show they can step up and perform regularly in the first team and it spoke volumes about the depth of the respective squads that on Sunday Madrid’s first substitutes were Ronaldo and Asensio, while Barca’s were Denis Suarez (who played well) and Sergi Roberto.
Sunday also saw Gerard Deulofeu given the chance to show whether he can replace Neymar and the answer he gave was a resounding ‘no’, unsurprising given that last season he played so rarely for Everton, that he was sent out on loan in January. Meanwhile Messi performed his usual magic, but is dropping deeper and deeper with age as he tries to help a beleaguered midfield.
The feeling about Barcelona is that they have a squad that has been neglected too long: players such as Xavi Hernandez, Dani Alves and now Neymar have left, while others such as Iniesta and Javier Mascherano are getting close to their sell-by date and the club has done little or nothing to replace them, moving too slowly to sign players such as Theo Hernandez and Ceballos, both of whom are now at Madrid.
Valverde is a fine coach, but at the moment the gulf between Barcelona and Real Madrid is widening. Madrid have a deep, balanced and hungry squad, while Barcelona appear to be struggling for air.