SOFT­EN­ING THE BLOW

Barca seek Su­per Cup tonic to Ney­mar han­gover

New Straits Times - - Sport -

BARCELONA host ri­vals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Span­ish Su­per Cup today badly in need of a morale-boost­ing win fol­low­ing the world record sale of Ney­mar to Paris Saint-Ger­main.

De­spite bank­ing €222 mil­lion (RM1.1 bil­lion) for the Brazil­ian, Barca’s scat­ter­gun ap­proach to find­ing a re­place­ment has so far been un­suc­cess­ful with bids for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Ous­mane Dem­bele of Borus­sia Dort­mund so far re­buffed.

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 Real 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.

Valverde’s men com­pleted a per­fect pre-sea­son on the field with a fourth straight win by sweep­ing aside Chapecoense 5-0 on Mon­day in a match to raise funds for the stricken Brazil­ian club who lost 19 play­ers and 24 club of­fi­cials in a plane crash last year.

“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.”

Ger­ard Deulofeu was handed Ney­mar ’s role along­side Messi and Luis Suarez up front against Chapecoense on his re­turn to the club af­ter spells at Ever­ton and AC Milan.

And the Span­ish in­ter­na­tional took his chance with a goal and two as­sists in just 45 min­utes on the field.

“It is al­ways a plea­sure to play here and even more so with th­ese play­ers,” said Deulofeu.

Valverde is likely to stick with Deulofeu, but the former Ath­letic Bil­bao coach could also 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.

De­spite fail­ing to win any of their pre-sea­son games, Real 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.

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.

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 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 US 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. AFP

AFP PIC

Ney­mar (right) shakes hands with his new coach Unai Emery of Paris Saint-Ger­main dur­ing train­ing on Fri­day.

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