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La Liga: Why the gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona is the biggest it has been in years

Rohith Nair
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18.19K   //    18 Aug 2017, 20:40 IST

Real Madrid Barcelona La Liga gap 2017-18
Real Madrid toyed with Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup
"In the nine years I've been at Barca, it's the first time I feel inferior to Madrid. We must live with this defeat and accept that Madrid are better than us." - Gerard Pique

While it seems a bit petty to suggest that there is an inferiority complex for the first time in nine years (Real Madrid have won three of the last four Champions League titles after all), you can see where the Barcelona defender is coming from. He is alluding to El Clasico itself - a match that has seen both sides regularly trade wins and losses in recent years.

Years ago, Pique had held up five fingers - one for each goal scored in the 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid in Jose Mourinho's first Clasico. It came to be known as the manita salute. This time he looked defeated as he sat on the bench cursing his arch rivals after he was substituted.

For this time, it was Barcelona who were on the wrong end of a 5-1 defeat (on aggregate). Pique had scored for Real, too, with an own goal opening proceedings in the first leg. And Barcelona's solitary goal over 180 minutes? A dubious penalty put away by Lionel Messi.

One might say it was "just the Spanish Super Cup". But the jaw-dropping ease with which Real Madrid systematically dismantled Barcelona home and away suggests this could only be a sign of things to come if the Catalan club do not declare an emergency and do some serious business in the transfer market.

Real Madrid 2017 Spanish Super Cup champions
Real Madrid - 2017 Spanish Super Cup champions

Sergio Busquets said the team needed new signings not because of the result but because they needed to "renew things". The two losses were not just down to Ernesto Valverde's naivety (more on that later), but also a consequence of years of mismanagement and poor decision-making at the boardroom level.

Back in Pep Guardiola's hey-days at the Camp Nou, Barcelona won five Clasicos in a row in La Liga. That now seems like a distant dream with one of the weakest Barca sides in the last decade up against Zinedine Zidane's mighty Real who look the complete package - and then some.

Zidane's Real Madrid has evolved into a higher entity

Across both legs, it was Real Madrid who looked sharper, quicker and simply more up for the contest in the curtain-raiser to the new La Liga season. Barcelona had their moments, but they were very few and far between.

Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane can afford to smile with the squad he has

Valverde was playing what was essentially his strongest lineup and they were still clearly struggling. In contrast, Zidane was able to field two separate attacking lineups in either leg and Los Blancos looked in total control throughout.

The French manager did not even need Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in the second leg; £166m in talent either rested or suspended. In less than two years, he has already formed a young core who will take up the mantle when the older players give way.

Every Real Madrid player moved with purpose, aware of what their responsibilities were on the pitch - both with and without the ball.

Real Madrid pressing Barcelona
Real Madrid pressed Barcelona high up the pitch to force errors

They pressed high up the pitch to put pressure on Barcelona's back-line, and goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was forced to go long (eventually conceding possession and allowing a shot on goal).

Every Real player knew where their teammate was, an almost telepathic understanding permeating the squad. On the ball, Real toyed with the Catalan outfit's midfield with cute back-heels, looking for an opening that always presented itself. It was a masterclass of football that elicited cries of 'Ole' from the Bernabeu faithful in the second leg.

Zidane is under no pressure to play BBC in every game. In the 90 matches he has been in charge, Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have played together only 26 times.

With a core of young players such as Marco Asensio (21), Mateo Kovacic (23), Raphael Varane (24), Casemiro (25), Dani Carvajal (25), Isco (25), and Lucas Vazquez (26), Zidane is set for the next few years.

Gareth Bale is 28, Marcelo is 29, and Toni Kroos only 27. And Ronaldo does not seem to be ageing even at 32.

Asensio has now become a cruel reminder to Barcelona of what could have been. They had the chance to sign him for €4.5m from Mallorca but dithered on the price and form of payment, allowing Real to step in and bring him to the Bernabeu.

Marco Asensio goal Real Madrid
Marco Asensio scored from distance in both legs

Real was always his first choice though. It was a promise to his late mother that saw him become overcome with emotion at his unveiling. Having adored Real since he was a child, Asensio is one who plays for the name on the front, showing off the name on the back when he finds the back of the net.

But the most beautiful aspect of Real's game now is their counter-attacking prowess. Not many teams play transtition football better than Zidane's Real at the moment.

It was Ronaldo who profited immensely in the first leg, helping start the move that saw Isco feed him the ball, which allowed him to cut inside Pique and find just those few inches of space, those few milliseconds, to find the top corner. A few minutes later, it was almost a carbon copy - this time Vazquez finding Asensio who surprised Ter Stegen from a distance.

This is all now a part of Zidane's legacy. And he's only been in the job 18 months.

Valverde has a lot do at Barcelona with few solutions in sight

Few managers would want to be in Valverde's position at the moment, including Valverde himself. The former Athletic Bilbao manager had rejected the Catalan club's advances twice in the past. He has now taken up the role when they find themselves at their most vulnerable.

Ernesto Valverde Barcelona
Ernesto Valverde has a lot of work to do at Barcelona

The biggest hurdle he faces now is replacing Neymar. The Brazilian is irreplaceable and even Pique suggested the same, claiming: "We can’t look for Neymar’s replacement because he’s not available on the market."

Also read: 5 incredible stats that prove Neymar is irreplaceable at Barcelona

The €222m may have filled the club's coffers but it is now weighing down on them in the market, with every club possessing a Barca target looking to fleece the La Liga giants. And they have every right to do so considering the window will close in two weeks, leaving little time to identify a replacement.

Every club will now play hardball with Barcelona. And the fact that they deseprately need signings to seriously improve the XI (let alone the squad) suggests a failure in strategy and succession planning.

But Neymar aside, Valverde has other issues to sort. If MSN carried this team last season, Messi and Luis Suarez are still doing the same. Barcelona's next-to-non-existent midfield and timid defence are what will be his top priorities.

Playing a back-three in the second leg with personnel not accustomed to their roles was tactical suicide, as Marcelo had the freedom to drive forward and wreak havoc. And players such as Javier Mascherano and Andre Gomes should be nowhere close to the starting lineup.

Javier Mascherano
Javier Mascherano struggled to keep up with Real Madrid

Mascherano is 33 and his age has been showing since last season - he is no longer able to keep up with physically superior players. Gomes has been inconsistent ever since he moved to Barcelona, and Modric made him look like a reserve player making his debut in a Champions League final with a sombrero flick prior to Benzema's goal that got the crowd on its feet.

Meanwhile, the limited game time for Nelson Semedo and Marlon Santos should also be questioned. They have shown enough promise to deserve a start ahead of Aleix Vidal and Mascherano in their respective positions.

Andres Iniesta sadly looks worn out after a long and illustrious career; this could actually be his final season in a Barca shirt. Sergio Busquets looks lost in the centre of the park without a mobile midfield to get the best out of him.

Nelson Semedo Barcelona
Nelson Semedo has what it takes to succeed Dani Alves

But tactics and questionable decisions on player roles aside, this was a Barcelona side that looked like it had lost its soul. PSG seemed to have ripped it away like a band-aid but in truth it has been ripped apart bit-by-bit over the last couple of years.

Barcelona's La Masia no longer produces talented players capable of making the step up to the senior team. The midfield (which used to be a shining beacon in Europe) has fallen into disarray. And Johan Cruyff's philosophy of embracing possession that eventually produced players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi seems to have been discarded.

For the first time in ages, Real had more possession than Barcelona (53.3% to 46.7% in the Super Cup second leg). That was almost unheard of in recent memory. In fact, the last time they did have more possession was just before Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard in 2008 (31 Clasicos ago).

Real have planned better than Barcelona in the last few years

With the 2017/18 La Liga season kicking off, it is Real Madrid who start as clear favourites to defend their crown. Nobody would put it past them to defend their Champions League title once again, too.

That's how much confidence Zidane has inspired in this squad. Even the ever-impatient Galactico-project-loving Florentino Perez has acceeded to his wishes of building the team in his image rather than making expensive signings.

The only signings Real have made this summer (so far) are Theo Hernandez (19) and Dani Ceballos (20) - players meant to strengthen the squad rather than walk into the starting lineup.

Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos
Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos - Real's only signings so far

The last two summers saw Real spend only €77m - an aberration in today's highly inflated market. Alvaro Morata was bought for €30m last year and sold this summer to Chelsea for €77m - literally bringing their net spend to zero with one sale alone.

On the other hand, Barcelona have lost their identity and the board is partly responsible. Sandro Rossell and Josep Bartomeu have undone the groundwork laid by former president Joan Laporta between 2006 and 2010. Expensive transfers such as Arda Turan (€34m), Gomes (€35m) and Paco Alcacer (€30m) have all flopped.

And for some reason they believe making Paulinho the club's fifth-most expensive signing of all time is the answer. The Brazilian's work-rate cannot be faulted and he could even be the most hardworking midfielder in this side. But can he prove that he is Barcelona quality?

Real Madrid Barcelona gap La Liga
Will Barcelona close the gap on Real Madrid?

With Luis Suarez ruled out for a month with a knee injury, Barcelona are in complete disarray even before the season has begun. And this time even Messi may not be able to carry them as he has done many times in the past.

A long, arduous season awaits Valverde and Barcelona. And it could be a turning point in the age-old rivalry with Real Madrid that could see the capital club pull away and establish their own era of dominance in Spain and Europe.

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