Barcelona and Real Madrid will do battle once again on Sunday as they look to lift the Spanish Supercopa, but the psychological gains, or more importantly losses, will prove far more important than the silverware.
After Barcelona stormed their way to both La Liga and Champions League crowns last season it suggested that they can handle almost anything one can throw at them, but Jose Mourinho will be looking forward to the new campaign knowing that his side have a great opportunity to topple the Catalan Kings this time around.
When Pep Guardiola’s side wrapped up their third consecutive title back in May it sparked days of wild street celebrations and drinking for not only the fans but also for the players, just two weeks before their Wembley clash with Manchester United.
Despite heading into a game of such magnitude, they wanted to take the opportunity to let their hair down after a season of immense pressure at the hands of Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who used every trick in the book in an attempt to discredit and disturb Barcelona’s incredible rise to the top of the game.
Truth be told, the mind games, and frankly downright libel, only grew to such staggering levels once the horse had bolted; whether it was Barca’s majestic canter to a 5-0 victory in the first el clasico of the season, or when Pepe was a bit too enthusiastic with the whip in the Champions League semi-final first leg.
But this time will be different. Sure, Madrid made a flying start to the last campaign and even went into that fateful el clasico top of the league, but this season the knives will be out from the first whistle, and, thanks to an evenly-matched four-game mini-series at the tail end of last season, Barca will know that the threat from the capital will be just as strong as ever.
The key difference, though, is that the first el clasico of the season proper will take place at the Santiago Bernabeu. Last time out Barca romped home in front of their own fans; this time they won’t have that luxury. When these two sides meet, every minor detail helps. With the clash coming in the penultimate jornada before the winter break, a Madrid win could well be too much for the Catalans to handle.
Mourinho may have received widespread criticism for his negative tactics against Barca over the years, and specifically in last season’s mini-series, but rarely has he been let down by them. After a year of close-quarters reconnaissance he will be even more confident, if that’s possible, that he can outwit the darlings of the European game and maybe, just maybe, pile on enough pressure to make them crack.
And after a brief summer break, the stress levels are ready to run off the charts once again. This weekend the two sides meet in the often disregarded Supercopa, but this time, like everything else this season, it matters so much more. It’s already happened in Manchester and Milan, and now the two Spanish giants will use their two-legged curtain raiser to land an early blow on their rivals.
The fact that Lionel Messi has trained hard all week to be fit enough to play highlights the significance of the tie in the grand scheme of the season. Despite only returning to training on Monday after having been Argentina’s focal point during their ill-fated Copa America campaign, Messi is determined to hit the ground running, and he is not alone. Fellow Copa contributors Javier Mascherano, Daniel Alves and new boy Alexis Sanchez are all looking to feature, while Madrid are hoping Fernando Gago, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria will be ready to play some part.
Aside from the absence of the Argentina trio, Madrid’s preparations have passed without incident. In a far cry from previous seasons, their summer signings were completed quickly, quietly and, most importantly, early. Not only was business concluded before the players reported back for pre-season training, but the five new arrivals were brought in with strength in depth in mind. Raphael Varane, Nuri Sahin, Jose Callejon, Hamit Altintop and Fabio Coentrao in particular are very good players, but without a marquee signing to accommodate, something that had become traditional in Madrid in recent years, Mourinho’s carefully laid plans will not be greatly disturbed. And with at least two quality players now vying for each position on the pitch, Madrid will have the numbers and ability to cover all but the very worst injury crisis.
Barcelona, though, are catching up in that respect. At the end of last season their over-reliance on their strongest eleven was brought sharply into focus as the likes of Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Xavi all sat out long periods. With fixtures and pressure piling up, the margins of victory became tighter, especially in comparison to their early-season romps. This time, things look a bit more promising, but there is still cause for concern.
Cesc Fabregas’ expected arrival will help reinforce a beleaguered midfield and provide the intricate cover necessary when Andres Iniesta or Xavi require a break, but the soon-to-be former Arsenal man is no stranger to persistent injury problems himself.
Chilean Sanchez is one of the most talented prospects in football, complete with the added bonus of being able to play anywhere across the forward line. Like all players, though, he will need time to adjust to Barcelona’s demanding high-tempo football, something that last season’s arrivals Javier Mascherano and Ibrahim Affelay should have managed by now.
But Guardiola will still feel that he is well short of defensive cover. When injury hit at the business end of last season it was Mascherano who was drafted in as an emergency centre back, and with no further signings it appears that the Argentina captain could be called upon to plug that gap once again.
Any crisis could see Guardiola take advantage of the fruits of La masia, as he has done already with Andreu Fontas and the supremely talented Thiago Alcantara, but will they be able to hold their nerve when the mind games and counter-claims are flying?
That pressure is Barcelona’s greatest enemy as they look to fight on all three fronts, and they will not want to invite any with a loss this weekend. Just like the league season proper, the crucial first leg takes place at the Bernabeu, and with Madrid ready to turn any molehill into a mountain, Barcelona cannot afford to show signs of weakness. Any ground made up in the early going could save the season from going to a photo finish.