Real Madrid will face Barcelona over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup after successfully defending the European equivalent against Manchester United in Skopje, the first trophy of six in play for manager Zinedine Zidane’s side this season.
The only team in history to complete a clean sweep of the league, Champions League, domestic cup, two super cups and Club World Cup was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2009, although that achievement was spread over two seasons. Zidane has the opportunity to go one better in 2017-18 by raking in all six trophies in a single campaign. If he pulls it off — and few would bet against it — the feat will install the Frenchman in the pantheon of football’s greatest managers .
In fact, plenty are betting on precisely that outcome, with Real currently favourites for the Champions League and Liga titles at several bookmakers and neck-and-neck in the Copa del Rey stakes with Barca, who have won a record 29 titles including each of the last three.
Ernesto Valverde has lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and so far attempts to replace the Brazilian with Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele have been met with cool disregard from Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. Sergio Ramos said after the friendly Clasico defeat in Miami that he hoped Neymar did leave Camp Nou as his absence would be “one less problem for us.” The Real captain would probably not make a similar statement about Paco Alcacer or Munir El Haddadi.
Neymar’s world-record move to Paris leaves a gaping hole in Valverde’s squad with nothing of comparable quality at the Barça boss’ disposal. Coutinho, Dembele or Kylian Mbappe may arrive before the end of August but it is unlikely any deal will be done in time for a Super Cup appearance. Zidane, meanwhile, has perhaps the strongest squad in football at his disposal, even after the departures of James Rodriguez, Pepe, Alvaro Morata and Danilo.
Such is Zidane’s embarrassment of riches that even the feted “BBC” of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo are no longer guaranteed to start every game when fit, a stick that was used to beat his predecessors when all was not going well on the pitch. Now, with Zidane having delivered six trophies to his paymasters in 18 months in charge, even Florentino Perez will not deign to interfere in the Frenchman’s squad management.
A change of formation may be imposed on Valverde in the absence of one third of the “MSN” but an organic evolution is underway at Madrid with the “BBC” losing some of its potency in the past two seasons and Isco and Marco Asensio challenging the status quo. Against United, Zidane opted for a midfield diamond with the Spain international behind Bale and Benzema and Jose Mourinho failed to counter it. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric interchanged positions to maintain the side’s balance and Casemiro was able to move up in support from his anchor role to exploit spaces in the opposition half, scoring and rattling the woodwork in a virtuoso performance.
It will be difficult for Zidane to justify altering the blueprint that also landed the Champions League title last season in such emphatic style and that will mean leaving one of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo on the bench in Camp Nou. The Portuguese was a spectator until the 82nd minute in Skopje after his extended break but it is more likely to be Bale who makes way on Sunday if Zidane opts for a 4-4-2, providing the Real boss with an enviable hand from the bench with the Welshman, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez waiting in the wings.
However, Modric is suspended after seeing red in the second leg of the 2014 Super Cup loss to Atletico. That does not necessarily mean Zidane will revert to a 4-3-3 — Mateo Kovacic has proven himself an able deputy and Dani Ceballos, player of the tournament at the Under-21 Euros in Poland, is also a possibility — but the Frenchman may decide to have a look at the “BBC” in tandem with an eye on the return in Madrid. He has not been afforded that opportunity from kickoff since the 2-3 Liga loss in Camp Nou last April.
The two sides last met in the Super Cup in 2012, with Barcelona winning the Camp Nou leg by the same score line but ceding the title to Madrid on away goals after a 2-1 at the Bernabeu. The season before, a 2-2 draw in Madrid was followed by a 3-2 home win for Barcelona. It may be “just” the Super Cup but both sides will again approach it as a marker for the greater prizes to be contested in 2017-18. Momentum is currently with Zidane and Valverde will be looking to inject some wind into Barca’s sails after a disappointing end to last season and a difficult summer in the transfer market.