Spanish Super Cup burning questions: Can Xavi clinch first Barca trophy? Why is it in Saudi Arabia

It’s January, which means it’s now time for the Spanish Supercopa to take centre-stage with four of the best teams in LaLiga doing battle for the prize, founded in 1982. This year, we’ve got the two biggest teams in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as Copa del Rey winners Real Betis and the cup runners-up, Valencia, in the mix.

But how does this tournament work? How do the four teams look heading into the action? What are some of the memorable moments of Supercopas past, and can this quartet deliver some fresh drama and magic of their own?

ESPN’s Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland break it all down and get you ready for the action, which begins on Wednesday and concludes with Sunday’s final in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

– Stream on ESPN+: Spanish Supercopa, Carabao Cup, more (U.S.)

What is the Supercopa? How does the format work?

It used to be the traditional curtain-raiser to the new season, pitting the LaLiga champions against the Copa del Rey winners. But after a revamp in 2020 it is now a four-team competition that takes place in January each year. So now, instead of two teams sweating it out over two games (home and away) in August, there are four teams vying for the trophy in Saudi Arabia this January.

Qualification for the tournament is simple. The top two in LaLiga the previous season and the two Copa del Rey finalists make the last four. If the same teams finish in the top two and reach the Copa final, the numbers are made up by the teams finishing third and potentially even fourth in LaLiga. It was straightforward this year: Real Madrid and Barcelona qualified as the top two in the league, with Copa winners Real Betis and runners-up Valencia joining them.

However, the draw has not always been so simple. The semifinals have been decided in various ways, from an open draw one year to ensuring league and cup winners avoided each other the next. The idea was often to try and set up a Clasico final, but there’s now a clear framework in place: LaLiga winners (Madrid) vs. Copa runners-up (Valencia) (LIVE Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.), and Copa winners (Betis) vs. LaLiga runners-up (Barca) (LIVE Thursday, 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.). — Marsden

Why is the Spanish Supercopa being played in Saudi Arabia?

Spanish football federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales’ desire to boost Supercopa revenue required a change in location, too. The removal of the two-legged, home-and-away format meant anything was possible, and in 2018 the Supercopa was played overseas for the first time, Barcelona beating Sevilla 2-1 in a one-off game held in Tangier, Morocco. Sevilla’s protests — they had already promised a home leg to fans as part of their season ticket package — were ignored.

The Morocco switch was just a trial run. In September 2019, the RFEF signed a six-year deal with Saudi Arabia worth €40 million per season. It later emerged that Gerard Pique‘s company Kosmos had played a key role, in return for a 10% commission.

“We have good links with the Middle East,” Pique said last April. “They wanted to take football competitions there and we spoke with Rubiales to see if he could be interested in taking the Supercopa … Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only [option], we spoke with Miami, [the RFEF] had an offer from Qatar.”

The first “Final Four” Supercopa took place in Jeddah in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic then forced a change of plans, with the 2021 tournament coming home to Andalusia, before returning to Saudi Arabia — this time in Riyadh — for 2022. The move has drawn widespread criticism, with concerns over human rights and a lack of gender equality, but there are no plans for a rethink. The RFEF has since extended the initial six-year agreement until 2029.

“We took the decision, it’s signed until 2029, we can’t keep questioning it,” a combative Rubiales told the RFEF general assembly in December. “If there are embassies, bilateral relationships and other businesses there, why can’t football go? We’re doing positive work [in Saudi Arabia]. There’s now a women’s league… We can either turn our backs on an entire society or try to show that things can change.” — Kirkland

How are Barcelona looking in terms of form and fitness?

Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez said that the team’s hard-fought 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid on Sunday in the league was worth “more than three points” and it sends them off to Saudi Arabia with a “massive morale boost.” Barca are still a team under construction, but that victory took them three points clear of Madrid at the top of the table after 16 games.

It was much needed because Barca had returned from the World Cup break in slow motion. They were held at home by Espanyol in their first game back and needed extra time to beat third-division side Intercity in the cup in midweek. The win over Atletico, which was not pretty at times, gives them the belief that they can win ugly, and they can compete against Europe’s best. They had lost their last two visits to the Estadio Metropolitano without scoring.

They now need to carry that momentum into the Supercopa, where Xavi has the chance to win a first trophy since replacing Ronald Koeman as coach last November. The competition is not high up their list of priorities but winning it could provide a platform and belief for further success in LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and the Europa League. Failure, depending on the context, could bring the spotlight back on to Xavi, who fell short in the Supercopa, the Copa del Rey and the Europa League last season.

Barca should be at full strength in the Middle East. Robert Lewandowski is currently serving a three-game ban in LaLiga but he is available to play the Supercopa. An enforced rest in the league could benefit him against Betis on Thursday and his goals — he has 18 in all competitions this season — could be the difference between the four teams. — Marsden

How are Real Madrid looking in terms of form and fitness?

Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Villarreal was the third time in five LaLiga games that Real Madrid have dropped points, a run stretching back to the end of October, before the World Cup break. Their only other game this month was a laboured 1-0 Copa del Rey win over fourth-tier Cacereno. It’s not exactly inspiring form, and there’ll be no let-up anytime soon. This Supercopa trip is the latest step in a daunting New Year fixture list which includes another visit to Villarreal next week in the Copa, tough league games with Athletic Club and Real Sociedad, and next month’s Club World Cup.

There are worries in defence — coach Carlo Ancelotti criticized the defending against Villarreal, saying “the team wasn’t compact” with the defence and midfield “too open.” Left-back Ferland Mendy was at fault for Villarreal’s opener, giving the ball away. Right-back Dani Carvajal hasn’t been fit and now David Alaba has a calf injury, resolving doubts over which of Alaba, Eder Militao or Antonio Rudiger start at centre-back. In midfield, the inconsistent Aurelien Tchouameni is out with another calf problem, while Eduardo Camavinga is still best deployed as an energetic impact substitute.

There are no concerns over Vinicius Junior or Rodrygo Goes in attack — Rodrygo’s late solo goal saved Madrid from extra time against Cacereno — but main man Karim Benzema hasn’t yet hit top form. His goal-scoring figures are solid, with eight goals in nine LaLiga appearances this season, but three of those have been penalties and in build-up play he’s looked a level below his fluid, effortless best. Madrid’s prospects in Saudi Arabia depend on that changing fast. — Kirkland

What about the other teams: Do Valencia or Real Betis have a chance?

Betis are in a much better place than Valencia. A 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday lifted them into the Champions League places in LaLiga. Manuel Pellegrini is doing a fine job in Seville. After leading Betis to a trophy by winning the Copa del Rey last season, the next step for the Chilean coach is to finish in the top four. They have a squad full of talent. Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir are fun to watch, although they have been setback this week by the loss of Alex Moreno, with sources confirming to ESPN the left-back is close to completing a €15m move to Aston Villa.

Things are not going so well for Valencia, despite the early season promise shown under Italian coach Gennaro Gattuso. Back-to-back defeats have seen them slip out of the top 10. Friday night’s reverse at home to Cadiz was particularly painful. They remain a threat to Madrid on Wednesday, though. Veteran striker Edinson Cavani has shown signs of coming to life in recent weeks and they have a talented crop of young midfielders coming through, including United States international Yunus Musah.

What both Betis and Valencia have shown in recent years is that they can compete with Barca and Madrid. Barca needed a late Lewandowski goal to beat Valencia at Mestalla this season, while Madrid only just edged out Betis at home. You only have to turn to last season, too, to find Valencia beating Madrid 4-1 and Betis bettering Xavi’s Barca at Camp Nou. And you only have to go back to 2021 to find the last non-Clasico winner of the Supercopa, when Athletic Club beat Madrid and Barca to lift the trophy. — Marsden

What are some memorable moments in recent Supercopa history?

Barcelona are the Supercopa team to beat, having won the competition 13 times to Real Madrid’s 12 since the tournament was created in 1982. Their record from 2009 until 2018, winning six Supercopas in a decade, reflects their domestic dominance at that time, kicked off by Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering 2009 vintage. But a notable power shift came in 2017 when Madrid won the Supercopa by beating Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate, with a 3-1 win at Camp Nou followed by a 2-0 victory at the Bernabeu. It was after that second leg that then-Barca defender Pique famously admitted that he “felt inferior to Madrid for the first time in nine years.”

The 2020 final — the first in the “Final Four” format — is best remembered for Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde‘s spectacular, match-saving professional foul on Alvaro Morata. Atletico Madrid forward Morata was through on goal in the 115th minute — the game had finished 0-0 after normal time — and one-on-one with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois when Valverde sprinted back to hack him down, earning a red card but preserving Madrid’s clean sheet. The Uruguayan even received a pat on the back of the head from Atletico coach Diego Simeone — perhaps recognising a kindred spirit — on his way off. Madrid went on to win on penalties.

In 2021, Athletic Club pulled off back-to-back upsets, knocking out Madrid before beating Barcelona 3-2 with a dramatic finale, turning around a 2-1 deficit with added time goals from Asier Villalibre and Inaki Williams. And last year’s semifinal was an epic Clasico all-timer. Madrid led Barca twice through Vinicius and Benzema, only to be pegged back by Luuk de Jong and Ansu Fati, before Valverde was once again the hero with an extra-time winner. — Kirkland


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