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Thursday, August 18, 2011
Super Supercopa

Phil Ball

Barcelona lifted the Supercopa trophy at precisely one o'clock on Thursday morning, with a stadium full of dancing Catalans, quite a few tourists (it's August, Spanish holidays) and a conspicuous absence of Real Madrid players, down in the dressing-rooms cooling off (physically and figuratively) and probably wondering just how they can ever get the better of their current nemesis. Traditionally, Madrid do get the better of Barca in this particular competition, dubbed 'pequenito' - of little importance - by Mourinho in the post-match press conference, but he didn't mean it. It was just another ugly little gesture by a man increasingly unable to control his tongue and accept defeat graciously, despite the fact that he had taken the two games very seriously indeed, with his side emerging as the better over the two legs. It's just that Messi likes to score against Iker Casillas - it's now 13 goals in 11 games. Even with the Catalans not running on all cylinders - their pre-season has been shorter and less demanding than that of Madrid - they still managed a 5-4 aggregate win and a wonderful display of striking efficiency. Nevertheless, on the evidence of the two games, Madrid would seem to have lost some of their previous neurosis about how to approach the Clasico. The Supercopa is often a rather anodyne affair and, like the Premier League's Community Shield, its dubious relevance to the season to come, often described as a 'psychological advantage' for the winning team, rather depends on whether the two opponents are likely to be contesting the subsequent league title, of course. In this case, as opposed to the last few seasons, it's hardly rocket science to suggest that these two sides will indeed be slugging it out for the big prize again come the end of the season. And despite the mass session of handbags at the end of the second leg in the Camp Nou - fought out as if no Clasico can ever be complete without a few slaps, tickles and mutual insults - the two games were actually wonderful, a display of football and commitment of the highest quality and degree, all the more astonishing given the pre-season circumstances. Oh - and the little issue of Cesc Fabregas' debut was thrown into the mix too, as a final spreading of cream on an already multi-layered cake. In the space of 13 minutes he was the target of Marcelo's calling-card, entitled 'Welcome to the Party', and the initiator of the move for Adrian to supply the cross for Messi's winner. Not in his wildest dreams, and he's probably had a few, could he have imagined making his Barcelona debut in such white-hot circumstances. The first halves of both games were particularly sumptuous, both in terms of goals and quality of play. In both cases, Barcelona were on the back foot, largely due to Madrid's superior fitness at this stage, but also due to the Catalans' rather experimental line-up in the first leg. After the ludicrous gaps in possession percentages for most of last season's innumerable Clasicos, with Barça almost averaging the series 70-30 on top, it was something of an eyebrow-raiser to see them only 52-48 ahead in the first leg at the Bernabeu. They were still ahead, mind, and they still got a result, despite Madrid's wonderfully efficient high-line, and the dizzying speed of their attacks. In the second leg, the possession was back to 60-40 in Barcelona's favour, but at times it seemed the opposite, with the home side limited to counter-attacking, and long balls from the back in a desperate attempt to prevent Madrid from initiating dangerous attacks from the second third of the pitch, where they continued to break up Barcelona's play with surprising ease. Xavi actually lost the ball in the first half, and - write it down in your notebooks - misplaced a pass to Andres Iniesta in the second. He probably donned his hair-shirt the next morning, and went to confessional. Is the end of the world nigh? Probably not, with Thiago and Fabregas waiting in the wings. The young Thiago, deservedly starting the first leg after his international performances over the summer, will be without doubt Xavi's successor - Fabregas is a different type of player - but he seemed slightly overawed by the occasion and had little influence. It's not a criticism, but at this kind of level, he still cannot be expected to produce immediate results. In terms of chequebook newcomers, the Chilean Alexis Sanchez looked a very interesting buy indeed, and played an interesting role by scaring the Madrid defenders with his darting runs into spaces on the flanks, and his obvious relish at taking people on. He'll still have to fit into the system, but would probably have played the second leg if he hadn't slipped and injured himself in the warm-up. Eric Abidal played in the left-half position and was probably Barcelona's best player, immaculate and economical with his every touch. For Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo looked typically ebullient, scored his 100th goal for the club - and with it his first at the Camp Nou - but generally in the second leg he played poorly, over-concerned with trying to humiliate Dani Alves (and failing), running with the ball when he should have passed it, and passing it when he should have run with it. But you can't fault him for trying. The shot that he unleashed in the first half at Victor Valdes, which the excellent keeper somehow pushed up onto the bar, must have been travelling at the speed of light. Valdes also pushed a shot from Ozil past the post when the German should perhaps have done better. Instead of trailing 2-1 at half-time, Real Madrid really should have been 1-3 to the good. They'll be happy enough about this, and happy enough that in the second leg, the line-up which lost 5-0 to Barcelona in November of 2010 - a game whose scars are yet to heal - only differed in terms of the presence of Fabio Coentrao, a player whose strength and commitment were definitely on show, but who was run ragged by Pedro in the second leg. Don't read too much into that. He looks a very astute signing. Apart from the promising Jose Callejon, who appeared in the first leg, we're going to have to wait a little to see what the others are like. To end on a statistical round-up, by winning the Supercopa, Pep Guardiola equalled Johan Cruyff's 11 trophies as manager of Barcelona. It took the Dutchman eight seasons to get them, whereas Pep has managed it in three and a bit. The pupil has already surpassed his master. Interestingly, too, the trophy gave Barcelona the 73rd piece of silverware in their history, equalling Real Madrid's haul. As the cliche goes, it's all still to play for. Whatever - in the end it was a great curtain-raiser, despite the melee at the end and despite the fact that the curtain will probably not be raised (more of that in a moment). Not only that, the second leg was witness to a sublime goal by Andres Iniesta, set up by Messi with a piece of skill and vision for which no defender can legislate. Both Khedira and the slowing Carvalho were caught napping by the pass, but it's difficult to criticise. The timing of Iniesta's run was to perfection, and the little chip over the world's best goalkeeper was immaculate. There might not be a better goal this season. Things went on elsewhere, too! Villarreal surprisingly lost 1-0 at Udinese, and will have to be careful not to mess up their Champions League campaign, on whose potential money their whole campaign is based. If they blow it, the likelihood of retaining Giuseppe Rossi and/or Nilmar will fade even faster. Off the pitch, the AFE (Spanish players' association) decided to take strike action over the lack of guarantees over players' wages. The inability of the AFE to come to a settlement with the LFP (The League Association) means that this weekend's games, and all friendly games too, have been called off. The strike is actually for the first two weeks of the season, but the two sides will meet on Friday to try to avert the second week happening too. It's too late to save the first weekend unless there is some miraculous last-minute U-turn, and so the world's greatest league (allegedly) may have to find space during a tightly-packed season for two more games, probably during the traditional Christmas break. The basis of the dispute is that the AFE - backed up by several high-profile internationals, Iker Casillas et al - wants a more constitutional guarantee that players' wages will be paid as per their contracts, whether or not their clubs are in administration or have not a penny to rub together. The LFP has a fund to guarantee these payments, but the AFE prefers a written agreement regarding the fate of clubs that fail to pay their players. It also wants more punishments to be meted out to clubs who fall into administration, as in other European leagues, so as to deter many of them from seeking an easy way out of their responsibilities. They have a point. At present, 200 players, many but not all them from the lower leagues, are still unpaid, to the collective tune of some €50 million. This will be the fourth strike in the history of La Liga, and the first since 1984. Not a great start, but in the long run it might be for the better.

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