For the first time since Pep Guardiola’s untried team took the football world by storm in 2008-09, Barcelona enter the new LaLiga season as clear underdogs to their fierce rivals – the reigning Spanish and European champions Real Madrid.
It is a state of affairs that might stir misty-eyed nostalgia for some Barcelona fans.
For decades in this bitterly entwined rivalry, Barca revelled in the righteous role of the downtrodden foe to the mighty Madrid. Striking blows against the capital club and their empire formed a romantic centre point to the carefully cultivated narrative of “Mes que un club”.
Madrid’s title win last season was only their second since Barca’s historic first treble. LaLiga has resided in Catalonia for six of the previous nine campaigns – an unparalleled period of Barcelona success.
Now, without top spot and the sensationally departed Neymar, the Blaugrana could find comfort and inspiration in the challenge of trying to slingshot Madrid’s Goliath between the eyes once more. At least, they might if the reality was not so utterly daunting.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) August 16, 2017
“This is the first time that I have felt we are inferior to Madrid”
Zinedine Zidane was without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo for Wednesday’s second leg of the Supercopa de Espana but, with a 3-1 advantage, he still felt able to rest Gareth Bale, Isco and Casemiro. Barcelona, operating at close to full strength, were flattered by their 2-0 loss on the night.
Madrid eviscerated Barca before half-time, the final tune-up for the season showing a worrying gulf for Ernesto Valverde as the ex-Athletic Bilbao man aims to prove Luis Enrique’s shoes are not too big to fill as head coach.
“In nine years at Barcelona this is the first time that I have felt we are inferior to Madrid,” a weary Gerard Pique tellingly observed afterwards.
In the other dugout, Zidane must have been straining to keep a grip on his “game by game” mantra. It is tantalising to imagine what more this Madrid team might achieve.
Such was their effortless mastery of the run-in at home and abroad last season, Zidane shuffling his pack to preserve established stars and unearth others simultaneously, it is easy to forget the paucity of the situation the France great inherited.
3 – Zinedine Zidane is the first Real Madrid manager ever to remain unbeaten in his first three Clasicos as a visitor (W2 D1). Smile. pic.twitter.com/Erm0XIPa4t
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 13, 2017
Game by game, trophy by trophy – Zidane on course for more glory
In 2015-16, Rafael Benitez’s instantly and deeply unpopular reign limped on until the midway point of the season, at which stage Zidane – for all the gravitas accrued during his playing days – was viewed as another man passing through the Santiago Bernabeu storm.
Initially, it was not pretty. Zidane cannily traded on his reputation by putting out a functional, grinding and sometimes dull Madrid side. Lesser figures would have been forced to play the Madrid way or face a hail of white handkerchiefs.
But Zidane added grit and solidity and his team rode their luck to edge out Atletico Madrid for Champions League glory.
On they rumbled into 2016-17, when they reached a Spanish record of 40 games unbeaten. Points being banked week after week allowed Zidane to gradually add embellishments. As this season’s curtain-raising Clasicos secured their coach’s seventh piece of silverware in 20 months, Madridistas could marvel at how far their team had come.
Ronaldo is on course to tie his personal Ballon d’Or battle with Lionel Messi at five apiece this year but it is Madrid who seem better equipped for life after their superstar as the two defining forces of this generation enter the final chapters of their careers.
Marco Asensio followed up his dazzling long-range strike at Camp Nou last weekend by repeating the trick early on in Wednesday’s game, setting the tone for a dominant half. The 21-year-old looks ready made to thrill on the big stage – the type of youngster Barcelona would churn out at will not so long ago.
— Omnisport (@OmnisportNews) August 16, 2017
Paulinho, Coutinho and Dembele – Barcelona rolling the dice
However, with La Masia’s production line spluttering, the test is to see how quickly and how well the Neymar bounty can be spent. The hefty price tags slapped on to Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele by Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund suggest €222million does not go nearly as far as it once did.
Paulinho arrives as a 29-year-old defensive midfield specialist, the position where players from Guardiola to Sergio Busquets dictated terms. Men steeped in everything Barcelona means, not parachuted in from the Chinese Super League.
Barcelona’s work in the transfer market over recent years has shown the same lack of forward planning that made Neymar’s departure a remote possibility. They must do better over the coming days.
If not for Messi’s enduring genius, it would be harder to make a case for this Barca squad usurping Madrid than it is for Atleti – still with Antoine Griezmann in their ranks – sustaining a more credible title challenge.
“We’re not in our best moment,” Pique said. “I’m not just talking about the team, but the club in general. We must all pull together.”
Shuddering from the impact of the Madrid juggernaut, Valverde must act calmly and shrewdly to mould a winning side, as Zidane has on the other side of the divide. If not, with the threat of the latest Bernabeu dynasty apparent, he runs a huge risk of becoming the Barcelona Benitez.