Jan 13, 2024, 06:00 AM ET
Real Madrid play Barcelona in the Spanish Supercopa final on Sunday, giving the competition the climactic El Clasico clash its new “final four” format was designed to showcase.
It’s the first time since 2020 — when the Supercopa was expanded and moved to Saudi Arabia — that the final will fulfil the tournament’s original goal of pitting the reigning LaLiga champions, Barcelona, against last season’s Copa del Rey winners, Real Madrid.
It’s also a repeat of last year’s Supercopa final, when a one-sided Clásico contest ended in a 3-1 Barca win, setting them up for a triumphant second half of the season, which ended with the league title.
– Stream Supercopa on ESPN+: Barca vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET)
Real Madrid reached this final with a thrilling 5-3 extra time win over Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, before Barca qualified with a more discreet 2-0 victory over Osasuna a day later.
Now the two giants go head-to-head on Sunday at Al-Awwal Park in Riyadh with the first trophy of the Spanish season at stake.
Why Real Madrid will win
Clásicos are notoriously unpredictable. Form and circumstances are forgotten when the whistle blows. The outcome feels almost entirely unrelated to context.
What’s more, both teams have players good enough to transform a game single-handed, rendering irrelevant what’s gone before. Just look at recent meetings between these two.
Barcelona were completely, overwhelmingly dominant when the teams last met on Oct. 28 in LaLiga. Until, with just over an hour played, Jude Bellingham turned the game at Montjuic on its head with a breathtaking goal out of nowhere — and then a late, dramatic winner — to give Madrid the three points.
Remember the last Clásico in a cup competition: the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg at Camp Nou in April 2023, which Madrid won at a canter, 4-0, just as Barca were preparing to lift the league title. Or their last Supercopa meeting in Riyadh, three months earlier, when Barca cruised to a 3-1 victory.
In other words, either team is more than capable of winning Sunday, so everything we say should be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, there are plenty of reasons for Madridistas to be optimistic.
When these two sides last faced off in October, it was a chippy and thrilling affair with Real Madrid eventually beating Barcelona 2-1. Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Wednesday’s gripping 5-3 win over Atletico — in which Real twice fought back from a goal down, to eventually emerge victorious in extra time — was more proof that this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten. Serial winners like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal could write the book on what it takes to lift trophies.
Madrid haven’t lost since September. This is a well-balanced team that looks dangerous in attack, and — despite the evidence to the contrary in the three goals conceded against Atleti — is generally solid in defence, conceding 11 goals in 19 LaLiga games this season.
Another relentless competitor, Antonio Rüdiger, is in the best form of his time at Madrid. Carvajal was the semifinal’s MVP. Federico Valverde is having a quietly exceptional season in a more withdrawn midfield role. Then there’s the goal threat and big-game personality of Bellingham.
Madrid’s squad is also reassuringly deep. On Wednesday, coach Carlo Ancelotti was able to call on Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga, Brahim Díaz, Joselu, Dani Ceballos and Arda Güler off the bench to help get the team over the line in extra time. Diaz, in particular, has been in electric form in recent weeks, forcing his way into Ancelotti’s plans and offering the team something different in attack.
The biggest doubt — and perhaps the team’s Achilles heel — comes in goal. Kepa Arrizabalaga started on Wednesday and was unconvincing once again, showing a familiar lack of conviction in coming off his line to fail to deal with Atletico’s third goal. The suspicion is that Ancelotti now prefers Andriy Lunin and has given Kepa minutes in this month’s cup competitions to keep his confidence up.
If repeated, it’s a decision which could cost the team, when finals are so often decided by fine margins. — Alex Kirkland
What does Barcelona need to change to beat Real Madrid?
Luis Garcia reacts to Barcelona’s 2-0 victory vs. Osasuna and previews the Supercopa de España final vs. Real Madrid.
Why Barcelona will win
Barcelona manager Xavi Hernández says last season’s Supercopa success, complete with the win over Madrid in the final, gave his players the belief they needed to go on and win LaLiga for the first time since 2019. He is hoping for a similar “click” in Riyadh on Sunday to quieten the criticism that has accompanied Barça in recent months.
That criticism peaked in December when a two-game winless run saw Barça slip seven points behind LaLiga leaders Madrid and Girona. The complaints extend beyond just results, though, and focus on the performances produced even when winning. Before Thursday’s 2-0 win over Osasuna, Barça had not won a game by more than a goal since Sept. 19, a run spanning 20 matches, and had not kept a clean sheet since Dec. 3.
With those streaks over, Barça, who have now won four consecutive matches in all competitions, will approach the Clásico with some of their confidence restored.
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Pedri’s return from injury helps. The midfielder came on for the final 30 minutes against Osasuna, coinciding with an upturn in Barça’s display. Xavi said the Spain international adds “clarity” to the team’s football, while midfielder Frenkie de Jong noted Barça are “more fluid” when he is on the pitch.
The temptation will be to start Pedri on Sunday, although some caution must also be applied given his recent injury history. He has only been fit to start eight games this season.
However, Pedri’s importance to the system may override any vigilance, with Xavi highlighting Barça’s “DNA and methodology” as the biggest reasons to believe they can emerge victorious this weekend.
“We have to take the ball from Madrid and our DNA must shine through more than ever,” he said in a news conference on Thursday. “The example is last year’s final. Madrid are in better form than they were then, but we will try to dominate them and play toe-to-toe. It’s the ideal moment for us to show our best football.”
Those are qualities Xavi often preaches but other attributes led to last year’s LaLiga title, which was built on a solid defensive base. That has been lost this season, with Barça already conceding more goals through 19 LaLiga games than they did in 38 last year, but a return to last season’s back four brought a clean sheet against Osasuna. With full-back João Cancelo a doubt to face Madrid, they may stick to that recipe of Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde.
A hamstring injury picked up by Raphinha against Osasuna may lead Xavi back to picking four midfielders, too, which was the tactic deployed in last season’s final. Pedri could return alongside De Jong, Ilkay Gündogan and Sergi Roberto to provide control in the middle and avoid an end-to-end game that would likely favour Madrid. It would also reserve João Felix and Lamine Yamal for the second half after both players made such a big impact off the bench against Osasuna. — Sam Marsden
Supercopa final predictions
Kirkland: Real Madrid 2-1 Barçelona. Bellingham — who else? — will score the winning goal and lift his first trophy with the club.
Marsden: Barçelona 3-1 Real Madrid. It’s the old cliche but form really does fly out the window in a Clásico, with the less-fancied team often prevailing. I think Barça’s need for a big win could get them over the line on Sunday, just as it did last year.