This week is all about the Supercopa de Espana -- stream LIVE on ESPN+ -- as four of LaLiga's biggest teams head to Saudi Arabia to battle for the trophy. (Oh, and we've got a "bonus Clasico" as Real Madrid battle old rivals Barcelona on Wednesday: 2 p.m. ET, ESPN+.)
So how is the rivalry looking in 2022 between Spain's big two? What are their likely tactics and lineups, and how much of a shot do both sides have at this summer's biggest players, Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, in the transfer window? ESPN FC's Graham Hunter, Alex Kirkland, Sid Lowe and Sam Marsden get you ready for what should be an especially dramatic Supercopa semifinal.
How doomed are Barcelona? Equally, how long will Real Madrid be way out front of them?
Let Barcelona's mess be a salutary lesson: Ineptitude can't prosper simply because there's a genius (aka Lionel Messi) on the books, which is a summary of their previous five years. Nevertheless, they are blessed, almost Teflon in their situation; which other club could be €1.4 billion in debt, treat their greatest player like flotsam and jetsam and still witness the most exceptional young players bursting through with a club legend in place to coach them? It'll take time to be a world force again, but the process will be massively interesting.
Madrid, meanwhile, deserve to gloat. As soon as Florentino Perez lost out on Neymar when the Brazilian joined Barcelona, he tasked his staff to repeatedly identify and sign the world's best young talent. The result? Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo, and Eduardo Camavinga, to name just a few. Their eminence gris midfield isn't athletic enough to run with the best of the Premier League in European football, but they're world-elite in every other sense. Their stadium, soon to generate huge extra revenue when renovations are complete, is light-years ahead of Barcelona's. In short, Los Blancos have an opportunity to be white-hot for a generation while the Catalans remain tepid. -- Hunter
Madrid's 17-point lead over Barca in LaLiga suggests the gulf between the two is vast right now, but things change fast. Madrid's overreliance on Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior -- an injury or loss of form for either would be a major handicap -- and their midfield (Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro) won't last forever. Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid have a history of dropping off in the second half of the season too, although the coach says he's learned from the mistakes of 2014-15, when three defeats in seven games (with Atletico and Barcelona among them) saw them lose their edge in the title race.
Barca have arguably the best group of young players anywhere in Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati, Nico Gonzalez and now Ferran Torres, and while relying on kids means there'll be bumps along the way, there's an exciting future there if Xavi is given the time and patience to build. The likely arrival of Mbappe at the Bernabeu -- let alone Haaland -- would tip the balance further in Madrid's favour, but I expect Barca to be competitive before too long. -- Kirkland
The Clasico has a habit of not going the way it's supposed to, so it might not be a great idea to make assumptions. But the fact that Ancelotti was prepared to admit that Madrid are favourites was quite telling. (He's not one for that kind of chatter.) Get their strongest XI out (which they won't) and Barcelona could be ok. And yet Madrid's lead over Barcelona feels like it will last for quite a while -- all the more so if that Mbappe guy turns up in the summer.
Barcelona are stabilising, even if it doesn't always look that way, but it won't happen immediately. -- Lowe
President Joan Laporta's claim that Barcelona are back was premature, but they are finally moving in the right direction after -- they will hope -- falling as far as they can fall. Time will be given to new coach Xavi Hernandez, who will be backed, as the €55 million signing of Ferran Torres showed. Real Madrid are too far ahead of them right now, but with most of their best players this season (Vinicius Jr. aside) the wrong side of 30, there's no reason Barca can't dramatically cut the gap by the start of the next campaign. -- Marsden
How does the setting change things for this competition?
While a lot of sports (and other soccer competitions) have taken events to Saudi Arabia -- including the Italian Super Cup, a Formula 1 Grand Prix and a previous edition of the Supercopa de Espana as part of a three-year deal, with a reported extension through 2029 -- it's been a point of contention for some leading figures in the sports world.
Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain's governing body of soccer, the RFEF, defended the decision to take the competition to Saudi Arabia when asked if he expected a backlash. "We hope that our opinion will be respected, which is to back the people that are in Saudi Arabia and to collaborate with the country's federation to serve as tool for social change," he said in 2019. "It's going to benefit men and women that live there. There are others with different opinions, some created from nothing, but we will also respect that."
Clubs, almost without exception, crave more money and bigger revenue streams like divas crave attention. So when RFEF President Luis Rubiales signed a contract to take this competition to the Middle East, a three-year deal worth a reported €120m, it was always highly unlikely that the leading LaLiga outfits would decline.
For neutrals and, I'll bet, many journalists and fans, it feels like an unjust relocation, but what can't be taken away from Rubiales -- even by someone like me, who argues that we are asking our footballers to perform at a high level too often -- is that the format of four teams has drastically improved the entertainment and competitive attitude in which the Supercopa is now played. Last season's edition, played in Sevilla, was sensationally good and dramatic.
Overall, this week will be further evidence not only that money talks, but that football listens. -- Hunter
It's all about money, obviously, but regardless of misgivings about the hosts, it's hard to argue that this new Supercopa format hasn't been a big success since it was introduced in 2019-20. The competition feels like much more of an "event" than it ever did before, when it was essentially a glorified pre-season friendly. The mid-January time slot -- and the associated fixture juggling to make it fit -- feels awkward, but there's no ideal solution given football's congested calendar.
The bottom line is that this week, the federation has delivered what LaLiga would dearly love to: a competitive Clasico played overseas. -- Kirkland
"A powerful gentleman is Mr. Money," as the Spanish phrase has it. -- Lowe
The setting doesn't change much for the players, who are accustomed to travelling around the globe with their clubs and national teams, though they could do without more unnecessary flights. But it will subtract from the atmosphere usually associated with the Clasico. Fans in Jeddah two years ago showed there's plenty of support for Barca and Madrid in Saudi Arabia -- the RFEF says 30,000 tickets have been sold for Wednesday's game -- but it won't be the same as when the two teams meet at Camp Nou or the Santiago Bernabeu.
As for the competition, the switch from two teams to four has worked well. Barca's defeat to Atletico Madrid in 2020 (and the subsequent sacking of Ernesto Valverde) was particularly memorable, as was Athletic's triumph last year. -- Marsden
Next summer, Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are likely moving from PSG and Dortmund, respectively. Do either LaLiga giant have a shot? If so, why? If not, why not?
If, by August 2022, Mbappe isn't a Real Madrid player, you have my permission to back the Houston Rockets to lift the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy, the Jets to win the Super Bowl after an unbeaten season and William Shatner to win an Oscar. He wants them, they want him: we've had enough of the tantric build-up, let's have the fireworks.
Haaland is a different kettle of fish. Everyone wants him and, bizarrely, Barcelona aren't out of the running. The pitch, being made to him by President Joan Laporta (via agent, Mino Raiola), is that should Haaland sign for Barcelona, it'll allow Barcelona and Madrid to engage in a second version of the all-consuming, historic Messi-Cristiano battle. "Don't join then, beat them," is what Laporta is selling to the Haaland-Raiola ticket.
Not that Madrid, who'd like to pair Haaland and Mbappe with Benzema and Vinicius, have an easy route to glory either. Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United ... the list is long and the Norwegian is a scoring phenomenon. Financial rewards and potential trophy power will be central, but Haaland's personality and how he sees his place in the world firmament over the next few years will tip the balance when the decision is made. -- Hunter
They absolutely have a shot. Mbappe ending up anywhere other than the Bernabeu next summer would be a surprise at this stage, even if Paris Saint-Germain pull out all the stops -- up to and including hiring Zinedine Zidane as manager -- to try to convince him to stay.
Haaland loves Spain, spends time here and speaks the language, and the iconography of replacing Messi or Ronaldo as the next global superstar at one of the world's two biggest clubs must appeal, despite the undeniable strength of the Premier League. The question is whether the Norwegian fancies competing for the spotlight with Mbappe at Madrid, or going head-to-head with him for Barcelona. The latter makes sense from a branding perspective, even if the finances don't add up -- but that's never stopped Barca in the past. -- Kirkland
Mbappe will be at the Bernabeu. Haaland will (probably) not be at the Camp Nou, even if Laporta would love him to be and it suits him to suggest it's possible. -- Lowe
A look at Barca's finances -- with gross debt totaling over €1 billion and last season's losses estimated at €400m -- will tell you they have no chance of signing Haaland. Laporta, though, thinks otherwise. He's met with the striker's agent, Raiola, two times and has said "everything is possible" ahead of the summer transfer window. "We're a player in the market again," he added. Barca will try for Haaland, but they may come up short against the riches of other clubs.
Madrid signing Mbappe, meanwhile, seems a given as his PSG contract runs down. They could even afford Haaland too, but the Norway striker may prefer to be the centrepiece of a project somewhere else. -- Marsden
Pick your starting XIs
Madrid (4-3-3): Thibaut Courtois; Lucas Vazquez, Militao, David Alaba, Ferland Mendy; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos: Vinicius, Benzema, Eden Hazard. Los Blancos are beginning to toy with Barcelona. They know, this week, that if they perform to capacity, they'll win. Barcelona's inability to score freely, matched by Courtois' utterly exceptional form, means that it'll be a seismic shock if Madrid aren't in the final.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Marc-Andre ter Stegen; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba; Nico, Sergio Busquets, Gavi; Abde, Ansu, Ferran Jutgla. The revolution is being televised. Xavi's young brigade are fun, daring and guarantee a golden future. But this is pups vs. papas. Do they have the discipline, the know-how and, above all, the big match temperament to end their four match Clasico losing streak? -- Hunter
Ancelotti's Real Madrid team picks itself, with one notable exception. The Italian hasn't varied his formation (or his key personnel) for months now. It's a classic 4-3-3 with Courtois in goal, a back four of Vazquez -- the game likely coming a little too soon for Dani Carvajal -- Alaba, Militao and Mendy; the vintage midfield of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Modric; and Vinicius and Benzema up front. The right-wing position is the only one that's up for grabs, with Ancelotti favouring Marco Asensio lately ahead of Rodrygo. -- Kirkland
Real Madrid is the team that picks itself: Courtois, Carvajal or Lucas, Milita, Alaba, Mendy, Modric, Casemiro, Kroos, Asensio, Benzema, Vinicius. The only real doubt is at right-back (until, and for as long as, Carvajal is fit) and at right wing, where increasingly it seems Asensio is ahead of Rodrygo. Gareth Bale, who may even have had a chance in the only position up for grabs, seems to have just disappeared.
Barcelona are far harder to predict, but their team will include young hopeful Daniel Alves da Silva. So ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Araujo, Alba, Gavi, Busquets, Nico, Abde, Depay, Dembele. -- Lowe
Barcelona: Ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Araujo, Alba, Busquets, De Jong, Nico, Gavi, Dembele, Memphis.
Real Madrid: Courtois, Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Mendy, Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Asensio, Benzema, Vinicius.
Barca's team will be dictated by injuries and absences due to positive COVID-19 tests. Fati is back but shouldn't be risked from the start, while late decisions will be made on Ronald Araujo and Frenkie de Jong's fitness. Torres and Pedri's availability is dependent on them returning a negative coronavirus result.
With all that in mind, Xavi should focus on the team's strength by picking four central midfielders. Gavi has proven capable of playing on the left of the front three and dropping back to make a midfield four when necessary, leaving Ousmane Dembele and Memphis as outlets in attack with Ansu and Torres (if available) on the bench. It would help against Madrid's experienced midfield of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric. The defence, pending Araujo's fitness, picks itself and will be tasked with dealing with Madrid's in-form attacking duo of Benzema and Vinicius. -- Marsden
Which player are you most excited to watch next week and why?
It has to be Vinicius. The Brazilian has added poise, intelligence and what the Spanish call "pausa" to his game -- the concept of producing smarts in split second decisions. But his basic ability, the thing that attracted Madrid in the first place, is something this Barcelona isn't well-equipped to cope with. The 21-year-old has vast, rocket-propelled pace and dribbles with will-of-the-wisp elusiveness. If he's on song, the Catalans won't cope.
Alternatively: Dani Alves. His record against Madrid is an Odyssey: four different clubs, 45 matches, 22 wins, seven draws, two goals, umpteen yellow cards and a sending off 16 years ago in a 2-2 draw when he was a Sevilla man. He lives for matches like this, and while objective analysis says that, at 38 years old, he's not ready for the combined threat of Vinicius, Benzema and Mendy ganging up on him down Madrid's left touchline, you'd say that to him at your peril. Attitude 100%. Aptitude, at this age? Well ... an unmissable contest. -- Hunter
Vinicius Junior: the most improved, most consistently entertaining player in Spain this season. There's no better sight in football these days than Vinicius with the ball at his feet, running at a panicked-looking defence. His duel with fellow Brazilian Alves -- 17 years his senior -- will be pure box office. -- Kirkland
It's reached that stage where you know not long is left, so every minute of Modric is a joy. Benzema is an obvious choice -- Vinicius too -- but actually, it's all about Alves against a proper team. Is he actually still good enough? It'll be fun finding out, either way. Also, if there's any chance of Pedri playing, that's always enjoyable. And Ferran Torres of course. -- Lowe
There's no doubt that Madrid have the most exciting players in Spain at the moment. Benzema and Vinicius are the top scorers in the country this season and make them favourites going into the Supercopa. However, this is a big week for Dembele.
The French forward has had a run of games since returning from injury, coming off the bench to rescue Barca in the Copa del Rey last week, but he needs to deliver against a higher calibre of opponent if he wants to justify being given a new deal at Camp Nou. His current terms expire in the summer and Barca have so far been unable to reach an agreement with the forward's camp. -- Marsden
If Madrid don't win, then watch out for Catalonia trying to anoint Xavi as a Saint. Ancelotti's side really should put a two-goal margin on Barca: Real Madrid win 3-1. -- Hunter
The same result as the last two times the teams met: Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona. -- Kirkland
Real Madrid 3-1 Barcelona: they're likely to be too good for this Barca side in transition. -- Lowe
Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid. Madrid have got the measure of Barca for this season, but what Xavi will at least want to see is a team playing in his style and competing with Ancelotti's side. -- Marsden