The Supercopa de España, the Spanish Liga's traditional two-legged season opener between the previous season's league and cup winners, is a rather meaningless competition designed to spark interest in the new campaign with a big match-up. This season, however, the stakes have been raised considerably.
Last year, José Mourinho arrived triumphantly in Madrid, fresh off of a historic treble with a mediocre Internazionale side, intending to knock Barcelona off their perch at the summit of the game. Mourinho failed to capture the league or the Champions League, but his team made leaps and bounds at every level, from the top, where the Portuguese managed to do what no Real Madrid manager has done since Alfredo di Stéfano and restructure the club hierarchy to give himself unparalleled control, to the bottom, where shrewd acquisitions have helped turn Madrid from an aging pack of ne'er-do-wells into one of the youngest and most exciting teams in Europe. Mourinho broke Madrid's curse in the Champions League first knockout round, taking the team to the semifinals for the first time since the 2002-03 season, and had Madrid not been on the same side of the draw as Barcelona, it is likely Madrid would have gone to the final, which would have been more similar to the Copa del Rey one-off game.
Four Clásicos nearly back-to-back in May of last season raised tensions considerably and exhausted both teams. The league clash ended in a hard-fought draw at the Bernabéu, before Madrid won the Copa del Rey in a brilliant tactical coup 1-0 aet. Barcelona struck back with a 2-0 victory away in the Champions League semifinal after some play acting by Dani Alves got key man Pepe sent off, before clinching it with a 1-1 draw in the Camp Nou.
While Mourinho may not have won the Champions League clash, what he showed is that he has a gameplan to stop Barcelona. Pepe's disruptive play in midfield shatters Barcelona's passing triangles and wins the ball higher up the pitch. This allows for quick breaks and stops Barcelona from getting into a rhythm. Tiring Barcelona out and frustrating their players allows Mourinho to play for the draw before going for the win in the second leg of a two-legged tie or in extra-time when players are sloppier and make mistakes.
What has changed since last season is that Madrid have once again strengthened their squad, with the additions of the versatile and energetic Fabio Coentrão, the promising defender Raphael Varane and last year's Bundesliga sensation Nuri Sahin, while Barcelona have put all their eggs in the Cesc Fábregas basket and added the mercurial Alexis Sánchez in a position where they have significant cover while neglecting to purchase a centerback to cover for the oft-injured and rapidly aging Carles Puyol. Barcelona even got rid of centerback Gabi Milito without replacing him.
While Madrid rocketed through their preseason, scoring for fun and winning all seven fixtures, Barcelona struggled, losing to Manchester United and even being crushed 4-1 by Chivas Guadalajara, a team that Madrid had earlier handily beaten 3-0. Several of Barcelona's stars have struggled for fitness during the preseason, including Xavi and Puyol, who is still recovering from knee surgery and is unlikely to be fully fit for the first leg. Busquets and Piqué also suffered knocks in the international friendly against Italy and, even if they start, may not be at full capacity. This leaves Barcelona with not a single fit centerback against one of the finest offenses in the world.
If Puyol is indeed absent, Barcelona will struggle. Last season in the Copa del Rey final, the absence of Puyol marshaling his area enabled Cristiano Ronaldo to get a free header in the box to score the winning goal. Indeed, last season, all of Barcelona's losses came when Puyol was on the treatment table.
Football is in many respects a game of momentum. Barcelona may be the better side, but Real are fit, bloodthirsty for revenge, in exceptional form and high on confidence. Barcelona, however, are ragged around the edges and feeling the strain of their poor preseason and small squad size. While no one cares about the Supercopa, if Madrid are able to pull off a demoralizing victory and kick Barcelona around a bit, it will put the fear of God into Guardiola's side and make them psychologically vulnerable going into the crucial opening weeks of the season, during which Barcelona have often slipped up in recent years.
The first leg will no doubt be a cagey affair, as Mourinho looks to prevent Barcelona from scoring. He knows the importance of away goals in such a tie, and that it will be difficult to score more than one or two goals against Barcelona, so damage control is key. However, as Mourinho demonstrated with Inter in the two-legged semifinal of the Champions League two years ago, Barcelona can be broken against at speed when they push forwards looking for a goal ever more desperately. There is method to Mourinho's madness, but I wouldn't expect the team to take too many unnecessary risks.
While I wouldn't necessarily classify Madrid as favourites in a tie against what is indisputably the world's finest team and one of the best of all time, it is no exaggeration to say that more than any Clásico for some time, this is Madrid's to lose. Mourinho must seize on the lessons of last year and attempt to impose his dominance on this tie, and if he manages it we may see profound ramifications for the season to come.