Coach Ernesto Valverde will get his first proper taste of the scorching rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid when the two giants of Spanish football meet on Sunday at the Nou Camp in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
Barca beat Real 3-2 in a pre-season ‘Clasico’ friendly in Miami in July but the stakes will be far higher in the Super Cup, the annual curtain raiser in Spain between the Liga champions and King’s Cup holders.
The second leg takes place next Wednesday in Madrid.
The two teams have not met in the competition since 2012, which was the last time Real lifted the trophy. One of the most defining images in the recent history of the rivalry came in the 2011 edition, when Jose Mourinho poked Barca’s then assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye as tensions boiled over following a dramatic 3-2 win for the Catalans.
Barca beat Juventus and Manchester United in addition to the Spanish champions in a promising pre-season tour of the United States, but have since been rocked by losing Neymar, one third of the ‘MSN’ strike force including Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi that routinely battered Liga defences,
Barca have so far failed in their efforts to spend the 222 million euros Paris St Germain paid them for Neymar, seeing bids rejected for Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele which leave the club wracked with doubts before facing a supremely confident Madrid side.
With Paco Alcacer or Gerard Deulofeu as his only options to join Messi and Suarez in a front three, Valverde may stray from the 4-3-3 formation his predecessor Luis Enrique preferred in order to bolster the midfield to counter Real.
Madrid outclassed Manchester United to win the European Super Cup 2-1 with a powerful four-man midfield although they will be without Luka Modric in the first leg due to a suspension dating back to Madrid’s last appearance in the Super Cup in 2014.
The Croatian’s absence gives Real coach Zinedine Zidane a dilemma over whether to bring in another midfielder against Barca, such as Mateo Kovacic or new signing Dani Ceballos, or revert to a front three to accommodate Gareth Bale, with Cristiano Ronaldo set to make his first start for Real since the Champions League final.
Ronaldo will be the centre of attention at the Nou Camp after a summer in which he reportedly threatened to leave Madrid although Valverde’s tactics should also focus on how to shackle Isco, the chief conductor of Real’s win over United and who has been in scintillating form in 2017.
Zidane’s side, meanwhile, will be equally attentive to the movements of Messi, the all-time top scorer in the Clasico who stunned the Bernabeu with a last-minute 3-2 winner but who has not scored against Real at the Nou Camp since 2012.