Four of Spain’s most historic sides have descended upon Riyadh to contest the 2021/22 Supercopa de Espana. Each of the quartet will value this mid-season competition in different ways, but they all need it to be a positive one.
The week began with Raul Garcia questioning the location and the purpose of travelling halfway around the world for what will be at most two matches in January. “I’m old fashioned, football has changed, it doesn’t think about the fans” claimed the Athletic Club forward. “It is more important to generate [income] and sponsorships”. It is certainly hard to disagree with his sentiment.
The moral arguments against holding the competition in Saudi Arabia are strong. After the pandemic forced the tournament to stay in Spain last year, there was hope it would remain local. But as Rulo insinuated, money always talks. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) signed a lucrative three-year deal with the Saudis to stage the tournament there back in 2019, and they are obliged to honour that agreement. Since then, the association has intensified, with the deal now running until 2029, worth a reported €30 million per year to the federation.
Initially, this agreement was ironic given the RFEF’s opposition to La Liga proposing to stage a league match in Miami. But this was just another battleground in the endless war between the respective presidents: Javier Tebas and Luis Rubiales.
As for the football, Real Madrid go into the competition as overwhelming favourites. They are top of the league and scoring for fun through Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema, who passed 300 club goals last weekend. Those two combined have scored more goals in all competitions this season (36) than Barcelona have as a team (35)! The closest league challenger to Los Blancos among the Supercopa quartet is Atletico Madrid, who are a colossal 16 points behind. But as Toni Kroos said in his pre-match press conference, anything can happen in these one-off matches.
The tournament kicks off in style with El Clasico – the fifteenth time these old foes have met in this competition alone. It is Xavi’s first Clasico, and it could be Ferran Torres’ debut too, having been registered officially and cleared to play.
Barcelona have lost the last four Clasicos, so Xavi will be keen to avoid a fifth, the ignominy of which Barca haven’t suffered since the mid-1960s. With La Liga form inconsistent, the Supercopa represents the first chance for Xavi to win something this season. While the Copa and the Europa League are also targets, this competition requires the least endurance. There are welcome returns too for Pedri and Ansu Fati, so culers may get closer to seeing what will become their first-choice XI.
For Carlo Ancelotti, this represents a chance to win the competition for the first time: the four trophies in his first spell were the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup. With the team in form and having beaten all three of their rivals already this season, it would take some strong convincing to argue against them lifting the trophy on Sunday night.
In the other semi-final, Atletico take on Athletic, the league champions against the Copa runners-up. Athletic are also the defending champions of course, having defeated Madrid and then Barcelona in a dramatic pair of matches 12 months ago as Marcelino enjoyed a whirlwind start to his tenure in Bilbao.
Atletico come into this struggling to find their groove this season. The attack often looks disjointed and the defence is unrecognisable for a Diego Simeone side. Injuries haven’t helped, but the drop in Jan Oblak’s form borders on the inexplicable. Los Colchoneros may be happy to be playing a different opponent in this competition, however. In their 14 Supercopa matches to date, 11 have been against Barcelona while in the other three they faced their cross-city rivals. The first incarnation of this new format and location was in 2020 and saw Madrid overcome Atletico on penalties, and a repeat of that final pairing is possible.
For all the criticisms of the venue, the rejuvenated format has breathed new life into a competition which was beginning to resemble a glorified friendly in late summer. If the last two years are anything to go by, these Supercopa matches should bring excitement and intrigue in abundance. Significantly, too, the results can help shape the narrative for these clubs as we head into the second half of the season.