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The first leg of the Spanish Supercup on Sunday largely expunged the residual dirt, on and off the field, which marred what should have been a feast of football toward the end of last season. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona played a positive match, which would certainly have benefited from a petition gathering pace in many sections of Spanish sporting society, including the players themselves. Iker Casillas acted as spokesman for the movement last week: "The Supercup should be just one game." Extra time and penalties would have been just the ticket on Sunday, but, of course, football is in the business of selling seats, and so the duel moves to Camp Nou on Wednesday, at the preposterous hour of 11p.m. in Barcelona (you can watch it at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN3 here.)
Here are a few observations after the first encounter.
|Jose Mourinho has been on his best behavior. Will it last?|
Silence is golden
Could Jose Mourinho have learned a valuable lesson? There is a camera trained on the Real coach for the duration of every game, of which he is fully aware. He uses this outlet to make plain his views on refereeing decisions, opposition players and the world at large with his patented shrugs, sardonic grins and Iberian hand gestures. On Sunday, Mourinho generally behaved impeccably and barely celebrated Xabi Alonso's equalizer. It was a performance far removed from sliding down the touchline on his knees or prancing across the Camp Nou pitch with a finger to his lips. It is still too early to tell if this season Mourinho's firebrand rhetoric will be absent, but the completion of his two-match European touchline ban (with a third suspended for three years) and the outcome of Wednesday's game may provide the answer. In the meantime, assistant manager Aitor Karanka has again been on media duty.
The respective performances of the teams can be explained by looking at their preparation. "We used to have preseason, now we go on tours," Pep Guardiola complained, pointing out that in the withering heat of Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Miami, his players couldn't train properly. "And that makes it difficult for the team to gain intensity, as you have seen," he said at the end of Barca's American jaunt. Facing opposition of high caliber, such as Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Chivas, Barca scored 10 and conceded 12 goals in a preseason during which Guardiola largely rested his international players. His Spain contingent was given a chance to recover from three summers of tournament football, and Lionel Messi spent an extended holiday pumping weights on a yacht. Even though the Flea returned looking more like Mighty Mouse, it is little wonder that Barcelona was a little rusty.
Meanwhile, Madrid cut a swath through a largely PR trip in the U.S., Germany, the UK and China. Karim Benzema scored almost as many goals as Barca -- eight -- and Cristiano Ronaldo chalked up his first hat trick of 2011-12. In total, Real bagged 27 goals and conceded five in preseason play. Its swagger in the Bernabeu was largely the result of that unbeaten run, even if the opposition was largely subpar. But in La Liga terms, that is equivalent to going on a run of seven wins against bottom-half opposition. Benzema could be a key player this season, with the usually downbeat Mourinho beaming, "He finally sees the game as I do."
Barca has started the past three seasons slowly, its players drained from international duty. Both sides should start strongly this year in a race to inch ahead of the other in the early exchanges. What may decide the title is whether Real can keep up its tempo all season, or if Barca's summer break will be decisive in the final throes. And no, no other side has even a chance of upsetting the apple cart this year.
The starting XI in the Bernabeu was the same as at Camp Nou last November, when Mourinho sat ashen-faced through the biggest drubbing of his managerial career. On Sunday, Real had 20 shots to Barca's four. That the only two strikes on target the visitors managed were David Villa's wonder-goal and Messi's jinking contribution shows that even when the machine breaks down, Barca has an abundance of individual brilliance to compensate. Largely reliant on Ronaldo last season, Real showed that it is a more cohesive unit this year, with summer business largely conducted in a more pragmatic way than Galactico summers. Shots on goal do not count toward the final score, but only an inspired Victor Valdes prevented Real from finally beating Guardiola's Barcelona on its home turf.
He belongs to Jesus
But unfortunately, the Almighty doesn't have a football team. Adriano Galliani does, and despite saying it would be "bellisimo" to have Kaka back at the San Siro, a deal is impossible. That is bad news for Kaka, an unused substitute on Sunday, which is a role he may have to get used to with Mesut Ozil and new boy Fabio Coentrao now apparently ahead of him in the pecking order. Mourinho's public backing of a player who occasionally shone at the tail end of last season has never been entirely convincing, and the world's second most expensive player looks likely to be a very luxurious ornament in the season to come.
There were few headlines generated when Real exercised its buy-back option on former Castilla striker Jose Callejon during the summer. Prolific for Real's B team for a single season, Callejon moved to Espanyol in 2008. Operating as a wide man for the most part, he managed 10 league goals in just shy of 100 appearances, adding two more in other competitions during a three-year spell. Unlikely to make many appearances on the wing for Real, and hardly a prolific out-and-out striker, it is hard to see exactly why Real purchased Callejon, especially on the evidence of his first competitive outing last Sunday.
Even though he scored against the L.A. Galaxy on his debut, Mourinho has spent most of the summer asking very publicly for a "third" striker. Assuming the other two are Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, Callejon and Kaka should be very familiar with each other by December. Expect Emmanuel Adebayor to return before the transfer window closes.
A time for heroes
Guardiola may have been overegging the tortilla when he described a 2-2 tie as a "heroic feat," but Barca was very much on the back foot for much of Sunday's match and lucky to escape without conceding at least one more. Real, of course, bemoaned the referee's decision not to award Ronaldo a penalty when Valdes brushed him with his arm, but Marcelo's trip on Alexis Sanchez was a far clearer offense. In any case, Guardiola tends toward the overdramatic, but his response to the result shows that he is more wary of Real now than he was 12 months ago.
Nothing more need be said about Spain's latest cap other than that Brazil is going to be bloody annoyed in 2014 when Thiago lines up in his father's native land in Spain's colors. The son of 1994 World Cup-winner Mazinho, until last week Thiago was eligible to play for the Canarinha.