Not so long ago, it seemed as though nothing could impede the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry. When in June 2015 Barca won the continental treble for the second time, it seemed as though they’d firmly taken the upper hand.
A lot has changed since then.
Since Zinedine Zidane took the helm in the capital in January 2016, the balance of power in Spain has shifted, precipitously; in his time leading the squad, Los Blancos have been unrivaled. In fact, so successful has Zizou’s team been, they’ve tallied as many trophies (UEFA Champions League title twice, a La Liga title, a Spanish Super Cup title, the UEFA Super Cup twice and a FIFA Club World Cup) as losses: Seven of each in seventeen months.
Arguably, as successful as Zizou was as a player (three-time FIFA World Player of the Year; Ballon d’Or winner; Player of the Year in Ligue 1, Serie A, and La Liga; World Cup champion and Golden Ball winner), his stature as a manager has already eclipsed such accolades. In less than two years, he’s accomplished things to which no other manager has ever laid claim.
Going into this year’s Champions League final, the last team to successfully defend a European Cup title was Milan, in 1990. No team had ever done it in the Champions League era—and yet Madrid made it look easy, thoroughly outclassing a sturdy Juventus team in the final and then in the Super Cup beat a stacked Manchester United squad that had been on a roll.
And the truth is, there’s a sense in Madrid that this team is still just getting started, despite three league titles in the past four years, and despite all the wins they’re rapidly piling up.
The time is deep, full of young stars still developing their talents. The strength and depth of the team is, quite simply, astounding. Not only is Cristiano Ronaldo arguably now the world’s best goal scorer (without Neymar or Suarez, can Messi still claim? I’d argue not), but he’s surrounded by talent as promising as accumulated anywhere else in the world.
The future is in the capital, and named thus: Theo Hernández (age 19), Marco Asensio (age 21), Mateo Kovacic (age 23), Raphaël Varane (age 24), and the triumvirate of Dani Carvajal, Isco and Casemiro, all age 25. Can any other squad boast such a collection of young talent?
Where once Camp Nou could claim Europe’s best collection of young talent, no longer is that the case. Instead, Spain’s most talented young talents are headed to the Bernabéu. Theo and Dani Ceballos but prove the point.
The midfield, once Barca’s strength under the mindful control of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, is now a weakness compared to Real’s riches, and it showed in the Super Cup drubbing. Additionally, Barca no longer seems capable of developing their own talent, and as they continue to sign transfers from elsewhere, what talent they have developed leaves for opportunities to actually play.
As a result, Barcelona appears on the verge of crisis, a team “without inspiration or identity”. Neymar’s loss was of the sort they’re hardly accustomed to, Suarez is out for at least a month, and Messi has yet to sign his extension. After getting thoroughly thrashed in the Spanish Super Cup (5-1, aggregate) even Gerard Pique expressed a bit of hopelessness at Camp Nou. “I feel inferior to Madrid,” he said.
Barca still have tremendous talent, and Ernesto Valverde is a skilled manager, particularly adept at keeping his calm. Even so, he has already readily admitted to the challenges ahead: “We have to find the mechanisms but the circumstances have changed. Things happened in preseason.”
Camp Nou is in disarray. Vice President Jordi Mestre says Messi’s contract extension is “agreed,” but nothing has yet been signed (and Bartomeu is meanwhile claiming otherwise), and we all remember Pique (and others) claiming Neymar was staying.
Pep Segura will claim major signings (Dembele and Coutinho) “are close,” but we know that game, and so disgruntled are fans at this point that Mestre’s been reduced to asking fans not to boo the Paulinho signing. At the same presser, Mestre was forced to defend Bartomeu, as many fans are calling for the president’s resignation. “Fans are free to express what feelings they want,” Mestre said at Paulinho’s presentation. “We would prefer respect, not insults, but I have no knowledge that Bartomeu will resign [because of the campaign].”
Remembering how Mestre was similarly “200% certain” Neymar would stay, it certainly wouldn’t surprise us to see things get worse for the Catalans before they get better.