FC Barcelona host rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup tonight in need of a morale-boosting win following the departure of Neymar.
Despite banking €222m for the Brazilian, Barca’s quest to finding a replacement has so far been unsuccessful with bids for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund rejected.
New Barca coach Ernesto Valverde must therefore try to down the European and Spanish champions with a weaker squad than the one which missed out to Real for the La Liga title last season.
However, Barca did manage to beat Madrid without the then-suspended Neymar the last time the sides met in competitive action back in April as Lionel Messi won an incredible encounter 3-2 with the last kick of the game.
The Catalans also edged last month’s Miami friendly between the two in Neymar’s last game for Barca 3-2.
“We’ve had a good pre-season and we are coming into the game in good condition,” said Valverde.
“But on Sunday the real thing starts, with a competitive game and a title at stake against our biggest rivals.”
Despite failing to win any of their pre-season games, Madrid started the new campaign as they ended last season with another trophy as Zinedine Zidane’s men proved too strong for Manchester United to win the UEFA Super Cup 2-1 on Tuesday.
Should Zidane wish to maintain the 4-4-2 system he has utilised to huge success in 2017, Mateo Kovacic is the favourite to replace his suspended Croatian team-mate Luka Modric in midfield.
However, Modric’s absence increases Cristiano Ronaldo’s chances of returning to the Madrid starting XI after making just a brief cameo appearance as a substitute against his former club in Macedonia.
Ronaldo only returned to training with his teammates last weekend on their return from a tour of the USA having been given an extended break following Portugal’s participation in the Confederations Cup and a court appearance in Madrid over allegations of tax evasion.
Zidane confirmed on Saturday he will sign a contract extension in the near future with the club he has guided to back-to-back Champions League titles.
“I’m happy because it’s a sign of confidence, that we have done good work,” Zidane said.
“I enjoy every day here. I’m lucky enough to have this extraordinary squad and I am very happy with it.”
It’s incredibly difficult to predict what will happen in El Clásico but I think it’s safe to say there will be plenty of drama and certainly a few goals when the teams take to the pitch at 21:00 GMT tonight.