Real Madrid and Barcelona find common causes as La Liga prepares for kick off

The Spanish giants need each other's help to tackle football's superpowers

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Barely had Real Madrid been handed their fourth trophy of the calendar year after Wednesday’s capture of the Uefa Super Cup than their president, Florentino Perez, was lavishing praise on the enemy.

“Barcelona,” Perez told reporters in Helsinki after Madrid had beaten Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0, “are one of the great world institutions. To see them back to what they were is a good thing for everyone, for Spanish football and world football.”

Some madridistas winced at those words; many barcelonistas listened with suspicion. But the fact is the most fabled rivalry in club sport is in a very contradictory phase. On the pitch, Madrid are lording it, having just won a fourth Champions League within the seven-year period since Barcelona last triumphed in the competition. They topped La Liga in May with a 13-point advantage over Barca.

Off the pitch, though, Perez and his counterpart Joan Laporta are, privately, as close as they ever have been through their many years - both presidents are serving second mandates - jostling for supremacy. They are firm allies in pushing the idea of a breakaway European Super League. They share advice on how to maximise the potential of the club’s brands, and how to keep up with the financial muscle of emerging football superpowers elsewhere.

So when La Liga’s new season kicks off this weekend, Perez will genuinely want Barcelona, who meet Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou, to have met the pressing, anxious deadlines for registering new players that have caused Laporta headaches over the past few days. Barcelona’s well-documented problems with steepling debts and an oversized salary bill have put them at risk of breaching La Liga’s budgetary controls, mechanisms that oblige clubs to observe a strict ratio of income to outgoings. Failure to balance the books means new players cannot be registered.

And this summer, a stellar procession of signings, high-profile and talented, have come into Camp Nou: Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessie, Jules Kounde to name but four. Laporta acknowledges that long-term debt at the club had risen to more than €1 billion when he won elections to his post for a second time last year. But he has also found fresh liquidity by selling off stakes in future broadcast and merchandising income. He is confident that, having presented yields of over €700m for the sale of, among other assets, 25 per cent of the next 25 years of the club’s domestic television rights, all these signings will be approved to play.

Assuming they are, Spanish football will show off the sort of superstar status it feared it was losing. The league that for the best part of a decade nourished the duel between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi no longer has either. Madrid this summer missed out on signing Kylian Mbappe, while Erling Haaland preferred Manchester to Spain.

Yet La Liga is the home of Karim Benzema, almost certainly the winner of this year’s Ballon D’Or, and now Lewandowski, who even Messi, the holder, believes deserved to win the last one. La Liga has pulling power. In Lewandowski and Kessie and Ferran Torres, Barca have this year prised away ambitious footballers from the champions of Germany (Bayern Munich), Italy (AC Milan) and England (Manchester City). Madrid in June paid the highest fee so far in the summer transfer window for the France midfielder, Aurelien Tchouameni, at an initial €80m from Monaco.

Madrid, under the worldly Carlo Ancelotti, begin as Liga favourites. But Barcelona’s sudden influx of expert manpower, if managed shrewdly by the inexperienced Xavi, may prove irresistible.

Barcelona's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski in action for his new club. AFP

Nor is it a two-horse race. Atletico Madrid, champions twice in the last nine seasons, may have wobbled in 2021/22 but no coach understands better how to cultivate a competitive edge than Diego Simeone. The signing of Axel Witsel, the Belgian midfield warrior, from Borussia Dortmund looks an excellent fit for Atletico.

Beyond the so-called big three, there are concerns about high standards being maintained. Villarreal reached a Champions League semi-final in April although the resources at coach Unai Emery’s disposal make a sustained challenge at the summit of La Liga improbable. Sevilla go into the season having lost, to market forces, the central defenders Kounde and Diego Carlos. Valencia, having appointed Gennaro Gattuso as their new head coach, have just waved goodbye to last season’s leading goalscorer Goncalo Guedes, bound for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Real Sociedad are well-run contenders for the top four, and, like Real Betis, the Copa del Rey holders, will be carefully curating the wizardry of a modern legend. La Real’s David Silva, 37 in January, retains his magical touch, while the ebullience of Betis’s Joaquin, 41 years young, can still light up an arena.

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Updated: August 12, 2022, 3:33 AM