Barcelona and Real Madrid will face off in the second El Clasico of the season on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) with the Spanish Supercopa on the line. As both sides fight for supremacy in LaLiga, the showdown between the Spanish giants will no doubt provide a morale boost for the winner as they eye domestic and European glory.
Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez is eyeing his first trophy as the club’s manager, while Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti will look to lead the club to a second consecutive win against their rivals.
ESPN’s Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland break it all down and get you ready for the Supercopa final in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
– Stream on ESPN+: Spanish Supercopa, Carabao Cup, more (U.S.)
The state of Barcelona ahead of Sunday’s final
Barcelona have struggled to put games to bed since the World Cup. Espanyol came back to draw 1-1 at Camp Nou in the first game back, before Xavi’s side gave up the lead three times against third-division Intercity in the Copa del Rey but won 4-3 in extra time. They did hold on last weekend to secure an important win at Atletico Madrid but did not kill off the game, instead digging in to hold on to a 1-0 win largely thanks to Ronald Araujo‘s last-minute goal-line clearance.
It came as no surprise, then, that Barca twice surrendered an advantage against Real Betis in Thursday’s Supercopa semifinal. They eventually set up a final against Madrid thanks to goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen‘s penalty heroics, but the usual complaints followed.
“We need to be more clinical when we are ahead and on top,” Xavi said. “We need to be more mature and control the game when we lead. That is missing at the moment.”
Santi Gimenez wrote in AS that “as is usually the case, Barca faded away” as the game progressed against Betis. “Barca suffered second-half syndrome once again,” added Santi Nolla in Mundo Deportivo. “The team appeared indifferent, slower than in the opening period.”
The honeymoon period is over for Xavi, which may or may not be fair. He inherited a team in a post-Lionel Messi depression, mired in financial trouble and ninth in LaLiga. He led them back into the Champions League — which they subsequently exited in the group stage this season for the second year running — and was backed in the transfer market. Robert Lewandowski was the headline signing as they spent €150 million on a number of top players, hoping success would pull them back onto their feet following one trophy — the Copa del Rey in 2021 under Ronald Koeman — in three years. As a result, there is now no more money to be spent and no more financial levers to be pulled, but the squad is not bad.
Domestically, at least, things are going well. They are top of LaLiga, three points clear of Madrid having lost just one game all season. A Supercopa win on Sunday could provide a launchpad for more silverware this season. They remain in the Copa del Rey, too.
Yet despite that, the thin line between success and failure feels more present at Barca than at other clubs. Defeats to Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in the Champions League, which saw them drop into the Europa League again, and the loss to Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu revealed flaws. Recent performances have too.
Six goals conceded in 16 LaLiga games contrasts with 18 leaked in eight cup matches to leave doubts about a defence that has struggled for consistency this season because of injuries. The lack of a reliable, natural right-back is the main problem. The debate is also served on midfielder Sergio Busquets, who made his 700th Barca appearance against Betis, and his worth at the top level now that he is 34. But who takes his place in central midfield? Frenkie de Jong is the only real option in the squad but Xavi often prefers him further forward. In attack, Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembele are difference-makers but Barca are still waiting for one of Ansu Fati, Raphinha or Ferran Torres to really grab the third forward position with both hands.
Barca, though, should not forget where they are coming from. The past three years have been tough and, but for the blemish in the Champions League, this year is a marked improvement. Performances may not always be glittering but Xavi is only 14 months into his tenure and a large part of the squad was only put together in the summer. There are positives to grasp on to.
Besides, a Supercopa win against their biggest rivals, which would represent the first trophy for the Xavi project, could quickly change the perspective. At the very least, it would buy Xavi some calm as he continues the rebuild. — Marsden
Real Madrid beats Valencia on pens to book spot in Supercopa final
Real Madrid defeats Valencia 4-3 in a penalty shootout to reach the Supercopa final.
How do Real Madrid look ahead of Sunday’s final?
Wednesday’s penalty shootout win over Valencia was a confidence boost for Real Madrid after their momentum had been slowed by a 2-1 LaLiga defeat at Villarreal last weekend, which saw them slip behind Barcelona in the title race. It came at a cost, though: Eduardo Camavinga and Lucas Vazquez were both forced off injured and the latter is ruled out for Sunday’s final, adding to the confirmed absences of defender David Alaba and midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni.
Madrid’s season has largely been good, but there have been just enough wobbles — the Villarreal loss, a 3-2 defeat at Rayo Vallecano before the World Cup, a 3-2 setback to RB Leipzig in the Champions League and the sometimes-laboured nature of Wednesday’s semifinal — to produce doubts as to just how far the team can go in Ancelotti’s second season in charge.
Last year’s LaLiga and Champions League double was so gloriously unexpected, both in terms of the outcome and the manner in which the latter was achieved, that it was always going to be a hard act to follow. The team’s strengths remain largely the same — Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are an evergreen guarantee of midfield control and creativity, and Vinicius Junior, Fede Valverde and Rodrygo Goes offer youthful energy and quality in support of striker Karim Benzema — but there are some doubts too.
The defence, and the team’s collective defending as a unit, is not as solid as it was last year. Madrid have conceded 16 goals in LaLiga so far compared to Barca’s miserly six. At the other end of the pitch, Benzema’s season has been one false start after another — culminating in missing France‘s World Cup campaign through injury — although there were signs in midweek that the Ballon d’Or winner might be getting closer to his true self. Benzema has scored four goals in the last two weeks against Valladolid, Villarreal and Valencia, but three of them were penalties.
Speaking postmatch on Wednesday, Ancelotti was honest in his assessment. “The team isn’t at its best,” he said. “That’s normal. The players’ condition is improving. … This has been a unique season, with the World Cup in December. We had 14 players [in Qatar] and it’s normal that [afterwards] your level can’t be at its highest.”
But that rationale will only be accepted for so long. At Madrid, as Ancelotti knows better than anybody — he was fired by the club in 2015, a year after winning the Champions League — trophies are the bottom line.
Beating Barcelona would make it two pieces of silverware so far this season out of a possible six, adding the Spanish Supercopa to the UEFA Super Cup they won against Eintracht Frankfurt in August, with LaLiga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and February’s Club World Cup still to come.
A definitive judgment on this team, and Ancelotti, will come at the end of the season when those more significant competitions are decided, but lifting the Supercopa would be a useful affirmation that things are heading in the right direction. — Kirkland
Key player for Barcelona: Pedri
Barca have been dependent on various players this season. Lewandowski has saved them several times with 19 goals in all competitions, Ter Stegen is nearing his best form once again and was the hero against Betis, while Araujo and Dembele have also contributed at key moments.
For Barca to play in the image they want to, though, they need Pedri at his best. He is still only 20 but is the outright first choice in midfield, ahead of Busquets, De Jong and Gavi. He has scored important goals in the past but now has the chance to deliver a defining performance in a final. — Marsden
Key player for Real Madrid: Thibaut Courtois
Benzema is this team’s leader, Vinicius its rising star and Modric the elder statesman, but time and time again it is Courtois who gets them out of trouble. The goalkeeper cemented his status as the world’s best No. 1 with his man-of-the-match display in the Champions League final last year, and after a minor dip earlier this season as back pain impacted his performance, he was on top form against Valencia in the semifinal, saving the decisive fifth spot kick from Jose Gaya in the shootout. With Madrid’s defence looking shaky, expect Courtois to have another busy evening against Barca. — Kirkland
Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid (after extra time): Based mainly on Barca’s greater need for a trophy, I predict they will get the job done in extra time. Madrid won this competition last season and followed it up with LaLiga and the Champions League. They looked like they were going through the motions against Valencia. Barca weren’t much better against Betis but for different reasons. The desire to validate Xavi’s tenure with silverware, coupled with a deeper bench at the moment, should push them over the line. — Marsden
Barcelona 2-3 Real Madrid (after extra time): When Real Madrid get to a final, they tend to win it — the last time they failed to do so was the 2018 UEFA Super Cup when they were beaten by Atletico Madrid — and I think they’ll have just enough to beat Barcelona here. Madrid dominated the last Clasico, a comfortable 3-1 LaLiga win in October, but this should be a tighter game, and don’t be at all surprised if it goes to extra time or even penalties. Benzema will be crucial, while Valverde is due a big goal, having been quiet post-World Cup. — Kirkland.