New look Spanish Super Cup ready for big kick-off in Saudi Arabia

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The Spanish Super Cup has been supersized. It may need a new name – the Mega Cup, perhaps – once audiences get used to a new-look competition.

A travelling show that has pitched its tent, for the first of three scheduled editions, some 6,500km from home, and eats into five days otherwise reserved for the regular season.

As of Wednesday evening, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is the temporary headquarters of La Liga’s elite.

Real Madrid will play Valencia there on Wednesday, and on Thursday, the champions Barcelona meet Atletico Madrid.

Thus the semi-finals of the transformed, exported Super Cup, which have conveniently keep the marquee clubs apart and the possibility of a ‘clasico’ final on Sunday open.

That is the preferred scenario of the Saudi hosts and the international broadcasters. Or at least, they hope for a clasico, as long as it is not with the same drab outcome of last month’s Barca-Madrid league meeting at Camp Nou, which finished 0-0.

Super Cups from southern Europe’s bigger leagues have been gradually turning into mobile ambassadors.

In 2018, Barcelona met Sevilla in Tangier, Morocco; the Italian Super Cup has been wandering around the globe for much of the 21st century, to the US, to China, to Doha, and lately to Saudi Arabia, where Juventus lost the 2019 clash to Lazio last month, and won the 2018 version against AC Milan last January.

The Saudi magnet for major events is increasingly powerful: Two visits by Ronaldo with Juve in the last 12 months, and now a double dose of Lionel Messi. Barcelona’s Messi scored the winning goal for Argentina against Brazil in Riyadh in November.

There has been some grumbling around Spain about the revamped Super Cup, traditionally an August curtain-raiser between the previous La Liga champions and the holders of the Copa del Rey, or, if the champions have achieved a Double, the losing finalists of the cup competition.

In the past, it was a two-team, two-legged event, with one match at the home of each contestant. That changed to a single game for the Tangier trip last season, and has now altered radically for this four-club, three-match mini-tournament.

The complaints come chiefly from supporters groups. Fewer than 50 fans, officially, have travelled, in support of Real Madrid and Valencia, barely more than that from Atletico’s registered fan groups. But the King Abdullah stadium will be full, thanks to local take-up of tickets, and the Spanish Football Federation’s treasury very full indeed.

The deal, to stage the Super Cup in Saudi Arabia for three years, is worth around €120 million (Dh492m) to Spain’s governing body.

The distribution of funds to the clubs, though, has angered Valencia above all. They won the Copa del Rey, beating Liga winners Barcelona in May’s final, so consider their participation in this Super Cup more valid than Real Madrid’s or Atletico’s.

Yet their share of the guaranteed income is around €2.7m. Real Madrid and Barcelona are earning around three times as much, and Atletico about twice Valencia’s fee.

Real Madrid and Valencia, who drew 1-1 in La Liga in December, face off again in the Spanish Super Cup on Wednesday. AP

“The distribution [of payments] has been made according to historical achievements, and done objectively,” argued Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Federation. “It’s the same system that is used in the Champions League and many leagues.”

That may be true, but does not make Valencia, Spanish champions six times and Cup winners eight times in their history, feel much more comfortable about their thin slice of the pie compared with Atletico (10 Ligas, and 10 Cups) and the two giants, Real (33 Ligas, 19 Cups) and Barcelona (26 Ligas, 30 Cups).

What Valencia may glimpse is the chance to get even, on the pitch. Unbeaten in five matches, and relatively fresh from a 1-1 draw last month with a Real Madrid who equalised only late in injury time, their opponents tonight are without four front-line strikers. On Monday, Real announced that Karim Benzema had joined an injury list that already included Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio. Gareth Bale is out, too, with a respiratory complaint.

That offers opportunities for Madrid’s two young Brazilian forwards, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior, and for Luka Jovic, the 22-year-old centre-forward signed from Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer for around €60m but yet to make a significant impact at Madrid.

Barcelona have injury issues, too, the most pressing being the likely absence of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen against an Atletico who are in the best form of all the contestants, with wins from their last three Liga matches.

Neto, the Brazilian keeper, will deputise for Ter Stegen, his confidence somewhat dented from a patchy display in the 2-2 draw at Espanyol at the weekend.

Updated: January 7, 2020 04:11 PM

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