Spanish Super Cup: 5 Biggest Storylines of Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona
The French author Jean-Philippe Toussaint once famously described Zinedine Zidane's headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final as "impossible."
Toussaint's reasoning wasn't that the event hadn't taken place, that the French captain hadn't been shown a red card, or even that Marco Materazzi hadn't fallen to ground clutching his pained chest. Rather, it was that the actual physical act—the headbutt—could not have happened at all.
Zidane’s head, he points out, cannot really have reached Materazzi’s chest since—in accordance with Zeno's paradox (illustration here and explanation here)—it would have had to travel half the distance there, then half the remaining distance, and so forth. Thus the two objects, head and chest, could never actually collide nor overtake each other.
And so it is with Jose Mourinho's finger and Tito Vilanova's eye. It was less than a year ago when these two persons—one anonymous, one unavoidably not—and objects met...erm, almost met, in the dramatic finish of the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Finger and eye, Mourinho and Tito. It's almost as if the two are forever suspended in space awaiting collision.
The same cannot be said for their squads, which not only collided on multiple fronts during the 2011-2012 campaign, but both of which experienced their own refutation of Zeno's Paradox. Real Madrid very much "overtook" FC Barcelona in La Liga, and the historic surrender of the title lingers heavily over these two-legs.
Nevertheless, many other eyes will be on the interaction between the two managers; and they, too, may try to prove the legitimacy of Toussaint's observation, acting as if nothing ever happened.
And so, without further ado, I present to you the 5 Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Spanish Super Cup.
The Return of Familiar Faces, the Introduction of New Ones
The obvious name here is David Villa. Injured in the December Club World Cup tournament in 2011, Villa is yet to be seen in anything more than a cameo—he played 18 minutes Saturday in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Dinamo Bucharest.
The hope for the Catalans is that he will return to his old form, but it must be kept in mind how the striker was performing pre-injury.
Despite some stellar goals (notably, a curling shot against Real Madrid in last season's Spanish Super Cup and a booming free kick against AC Milan in the Champions League), Villa's form in late 2011 was somewhat off.
He looked tired and disinterested, and rumors began to fly around of a potential fallout with Lionel Messi.
Nonetheless, it's impossible not to envision Villa, if he can play, being an important factor in the Cup.
Carles Puyol is the other big question mark for FC Barcelona. The captain has clearly neared the twilight of his career with a major knee operation being the most recent setback; however, what he's lost in pace, he's made up for in heart.
Who can forget the strong, symphonic motions of Puyol's arms when Barcelona went down a goal less than thirty seconds into the December Classico? Even Real Madrid fans understand that the Spanish international is one of the titans of this contest.
But the newcomers are just as important. As the acquisition of Luka Modric looks more and more likely, is it possible that Mourinho will opt to play the Croatian midfielder? It seems unlikely, but it must be reminded that the Spanish Super Cup isn't a major trophy per se, and that any chance to build chemistry before the season must be taken into consideration.
Then there is Jordi Alba. An unquestionable star of the European Championships, Alba will certainly play in the Spanish Super Cup, although he will have to compete with Adriano for a starting position. Quick, attacking, and underrated in the defensive phase, Jordi Alba could be a rather key asset for Barcelona—just as much as his inexperience could be a liability.
Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
As a source of countless cliches and tired arguments, the ultra-hyped battle of Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo is yet another intriguing storyline.
This time last season, the scales were emphatically on the side of the Argentine, who scored thrice in the Spanish Super Cup. His dramatic winner in the second leg will not soon be forgotten until something else—maybe even someone else—puts a stamp on this year's Spanish Super Cup.
But the season's duel between Ronaldo and Messi was last black-and-white. While Messi racked up individual numbers that are simply ridiculous, Ronaldo turned up more often on the statsheet in the recent El Clásicos (3 goals to Messi's 0), and it was his Real Madrid team that won La Liga by a staggering nine points.
There are many stars in the squads of Real Madrid and Barcelona—heck, in all of the squad in Europe—but none are as big as Ronaldo and Messi.
Recent history tells us that one or the other will go off and not both, so which one will it be?
The "Pepe" Factor
It's worth noting how remarkable the El Clásico victory in May was for Real Madrid. Not only did it virtually assure the team the La Liga title—or that such a season victory wouldn't be "empty"—but it proved to fans, supporters and critics that Los Blancos could win a certain way.
Until then, Madrid had only beaten Barcelona with a congested, violent Pepe-inspired midfield. With Pepe there in the "Trivote" (as the Spanish press called it), Barcelona had only won twice in four occasions—one of which being the infamous "red card"—which is a much better stat than anybody else playing there, notably Ozil.
Pepe made Madrid more negative and violent, but also more sturdy. Barcelona aren't as prone to score four or five goals with their talented midfielders given little space. It was this type of 3-DM (defensive midfielder) style that is said to have inspired Roberto Di Matteo's more measured approach in the Champions League semifinals with Chelsea.
All that said, the fans weren't as happy winning "ugly." After all, they were seeing their team winning by incredible scorelines every week in La Liga, playing nothing but beautiful, attacking football. Certainly, May's victory wasn't as offensive as a mid-Saturday contest against Sporting Gijon, but it showed the club's commitment to defeat Barcelona without backing down from their principles, by not playing their rival's hand.
Whether Mourinho feels comfortable of building on that is unknown. Will Ozil resume his role in the middle? Will Pepe? Or will it be a new face like Modric?
The Last "Spanish" Super Cup
This Spanish Super Cup, unlike the Community Shield and Italian Super Cup, is a two-legged affair. One home, one away. It's a unique format for a season-kickoff event, very similar to domestic and European competitions. But all of that is about to change.
The RFEF has confirmed an agreement with the company Vansen International Sport to take the competition, which is played in August and pits the winner of the previous season's La Liga champions against the champions of the Copa del Rey in the tradition opening game to the Spanish football season.
The agreement is calculated to be worth slightly over 39 million Euros and the first final to be played in China is expected to be in 2013. Next season's Supercup will be played between league champions Real Madrid and Cup winners, FC Barcelona.
This is the latest initiative taken by the Spanish football authorities to open up markets in Asia and follows the decision taken this season to play one game in the La Liga at midday on Sunday to coincide with prime-time television time in Asia.
The move is hardly surprising, given the dire state of the Spanish economy and La Liga as a whole. Unfortunately, it's more traveling and jet-lagging for the competing teams. What was once a warmup contest—which has become a bit more intense due to the rivalry of the the two clubs—has now become a potential danger for early success in the La Liga season.
A knock-on effect may be exactly what the supporters and financiers of the deal don't want to happen: for the stars to sit this one out.
How Will Tito Cope?
With so many uncertainties before next week's match, it's still worth remembering that the biggest question mark is at one of the helms: Tito Vilanova's replacement of Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola, in many ways, has been the face of the footballing revolution in Barcelona, as it was his recent influence that compelled Madrid to compile their current squad (only Ramos and Casillas are the likely starters that played in the 6-2 Madrid loss at the Bernabeu some three years ago).
Guardiola was the dreamer, the philosopher, the player-manager. He was so many things wrapped into one human being, and his status as a Barcelona legend solidified his respect in the locker room.
Vilanova was also a La Masia talent, but he never saw much of the field. His career was shortened by ability and injury, and his respect of his players may be harder to come by. Certainly, the players were ecstatic at the appointment—really, how many top-flight teams replace their manager with his assistant?—but it remains a question whether he can move from trainer to motivator, assistant to leader.
Tito's disposition is more detail-oriented, more clinical than Guardiola's. Many believe that he is the mastermind behind the recent pressing/possession football that is so popular out of Barcelona. It's very well possible that he may be unclouded by passions, and that he can very well ascend the club to new heights with his innovation and attention to detail.
But these matches are often decided in between the lines, in moments of tension and inspiration that can't be captured by a statsheet or a chalkboard. Will Tito been a "Tin Man" in these instances? Plainly, will he rely on the captains to do those things, while quietly contemplating the team's next move or adjustment?
We'll have to wait and see.