Barcelona
Barcelona seeks morale boost against Real Madrid in Spanish Super Cup final
Barcelona

Barcelona seeks morale boost against Real Madrid in Spanish Super Cup final

Updated Jan. 13, 2024 3:32 p.m. ET

Troubled by its erratic form, Barcelona will face a Real Madrid that is playing like a champion-in-the-making in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Barcelona's 2-0 win over Osasuna in the semifinals on Thursday was the first time it had won by more than a one-goal margin since September, a run of 20 straight games without a comfortable victory for Xavi Hernández's side.

"This is the ideal scenario for a player, to play against Madrid with a title at stake," Xavi, who played 42 times against Madrid as a Barcelona midfielder, said Saturday. "Madrid arrives in a bit better form than we do, I have to be honest. But when the ball starts to roll it is 50-50."

Madrid has only lost once in 27 games across all competitions this season. The Spanish league leader avenged that sole defeat to Atletico Madrid by beating its crosstown rival 5-3 in extra time in the other Super Cup semifinal on Wednesday.

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Barcelona bettered Madrid a year ago in Riyadh in the same final to win its first trophy under Xavi, and the first since the painful exit of Lionel Messi in 2021. Midfielder Gavi Páez led Barcelona by scoring the opener and setting up goals by Robert Lewandowski and Pedri González. Barcelona then went on to win the Spanish league four months later.

Barcelona will have to find a way to beat Madrid without Gavi this time. Gavi, the team's best tackler, tore his ACL in his right knee in November while playing for Spain.

Gavi was also his team's best player the last time it faced Madrid in October, when Jude Bellingham scored twice late as Madrid rallied for a 2-1 win in the domestic league.

Xavi declined to reveal in the pre-game news conference whether he would pack his midfield with four players or opt for a three-man attack like he did against Osasuna. The injury to winger Raphinha could prompt him to play with an extra man in midfield, perhaps starting Pedri after he came on as a substitute in the semifinals.

João Félix, Ferran Torres and teenager Lamine Yamal will be available to accompany Lewandowski up front.

"Regardless of whether we play with three, four or five midfielders, the idea won't change," Xavi said. "We want to pass the ball in triangle formations, establish a numerical advantage, have the ball. That is the plan we have used since (Johan) Cruyff started it (in the late 1980s)."

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti's main question will be whether to give the 38-year-old Luka Modrić a second consecutive start or leave him as a second-half substitute as he has for most of the season. Toni Kroos could take his place, while Madrid's attack will likely once again be for Brazilian pair Vinícius Júnior and Rodyrgo.

"We're one step away from the first trophy of the season," Ancelotti said. "We're going to try to do what we have to do, which is to try to win the final."

The Super Cup's revamped "Final Four" format debuted in Saudi Arabia in 2020 in the first of a lucrative multi-year deal for the clubs and the Spanish soccer federation. The competition has been heavily criticized by women's and human rights groups for allegedly helping an authoritarian regime clean up its image.

Barcelona qualified for the Super Cup as the Spanish league champion, Madrid as the Copa del Rey champion.

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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