Lionel Messi (C) of Barcelona vies for the ball with Mateo Kovacic(C-BACK) of Real Madrid during their International Champions Cup football match at Hard Rock Stadium on July 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP
Barcelona host Real Madrid in the Spanish football season’s opening act in the Super Cup, first leg on Sunday (2000GMT) needing to dispel doubts they have fallen further behind their rivals following Neymar’s departure.
The Brazilian’s world record 222 million euro ($261 million) move to Paris Saint-Germain just days before the start of the campaign deprives a Barca side that missed out to Madrid for the Spanish title for the first time in five years last season one of their most dangerous weapons.
Barca’s immediate attempts to find a replacement in Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund have so far fallen short.
New Barca coach Ernesto Valverde therefore has a tactical conundrum on his Camp Nou bow to fill the void alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez up front.
And influential defender Gerard Pique admitted Barca must compensate for Neymar’s absence collectively rather than looking for a saviour in the transfer market.
“More than replacing him, we have to make ourselves stronger. There isn’t a replacement for Neymar in the market,” said Pique, who also recognised on Saturday his desperate attempts at talking Neymar out of moving had failed.
Pique is hoping Barca will be motivated by the pain of missing out to Madrid for the biggest titles last season as Real also became the first side to retain the Champions League.
“When your rivals win more than you, you have to turn the situation around,” added Pique.
“History shows we have known how to do that, but history also shows you can’t always win.”
Recent clashes between the two do favour Barca. The last time the sides met in competitive action back in April the Catalans emerged victorious at the Santiago Bernabeu even without the then suspended Neymar as Messi won an incredible encounter 3-2 with the last kick of the game.
Barca also edged last month’s Miami friendly between the two in Neymar’s last game for Barca 3-2.
“The friendly game during the tour is a reference point,” said Valverde. “But it is different now there is a title at stake.”
Gerard Deulofeu scored and provided two assists in just 45 minutes in Neymar’s role as Barca completed their pre-season preparations by sweeping aside Chapecoense 5-0 on Monday.
However, Valverde also has the option to strengthen Barca’s midfield by sacrificing a forward to add Sergi Roberto to the normal midfield three of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta.
– Ronaldo ‘ready’ to return –
Madrid’s relentless winning streak under Zinedine Zidane continued in midweek as Los Blancos beat Manchester United 2-1 to win the UEFA Super Cup 2-1.
Casemiro and Isco were on target as Madrid’s midfield dazzled in Skopje, Macedonia, but Zidane will be forced into at least one change from the side that started in midweek as Luka Modric is suspended.
Mateo Kovacic is the favourite to replace his Croatian teammate 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.
“He had his holiday and has been with us only five or six days, but physically he worked very hard during his holidays and he is ready,” said Zidane.
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