Going into the start of this season, Real Madrid were an unstoppable force. The unrelenting form that led them to their league and Champions League double last season continued into the new campaign, as they defeated Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup before subjecting Barcelona to a chastening 5-1 aggregate defeat in the Supercopa de España.
Barcelona, on the other hand, were in comparative turmoil. Their Copa del Rey victory last season was little consolation for seeing their hated rivals lift the bigger prizes, and the manner of their defeat in the Supercopa seemed to confirm that the balance of power was tipping back towards the capital. Off the pitch, their disastrous performance in the transfer market and fan (and reportedly player) unrest over the presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu gave the impression of a club in chaos.
The nascent league table, though, paints a different picture entirely. After a comfortable opening-day win at Deportivo, Real Madrid have yet to win at home after stumbling to consecutive draws against Valencia and Levante, while Barcelona have won all three of their games without conceding a goal.
Madrid’s surprise draw with newly-promoted Levante on Saturday came after manager Zinedine Zidane made a number of changes to the side. Keylor Navas and Casemiro were rested after their long trips back from international duty in Latin America, while Luka Modrić, Isco and Gareth Bale were all omitted from the side.
Such rotation of players is a feature of Zidane’s management style which served him well last season, but on this occasion it seemed the side was too disrupted. His decision to play Marcelo out of position with Theo Hernández filling in at left-back added to that disruption, and starting without Isco was perhaps the wrong choice given his recent brilliance for club and country. Meanwhile, Marco Asensio was uncharacteristically quiet, his threat having been nullified by a disciplined Levante defence.
Barcelona, however, put on a wonderful display as they hammered city rivals Espanyol 5-0 at Camp Nou. The club’s off-pitch disarray has seemingly had no effect on the team’s performance, as Lionel Messi scored his 27th La Liga hat-trick for Barcelona in a victory that suggests that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Manager Ernesto Valverde has done his best to deflect any questions about the board-level issues at the club, and to keep the players’ minds on on-pitch matters. A large section of the Barça support were still calling for Bartomeu’s resignation despite the victory, but the fans will have been pleased to see new signing Ousmane Dembélé come off the bench and mark his debut with an assist.
Both sides have temporarily switched their focus to European football this midweek, with fixtures against wildly different opponents. Barcelona were emphatic 3-0 victors against last year’s finalists Juventus on Tuesday night, and Real Madrid will be hoping to top that result in their home game against Cypriot champions APOEL on Wednesday night.
They could definitely do with a confidence-building result ahead of their potentially tricky trip to the Basque Country to face Real Sociedad, the only team aside from Barcelona to have won all their league games so far. Club record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo will be available for the first time in a month for the APOEL tie, but he will still be suspended for the trip to San Sebastián on Sunday.
His continued absence, along with the injury sustained by Karim Benzema against Levante, will give Zidane something of a problem in the centre-forward position. Gareth Bale and the inexperienced Borja Mayoral are his only available options, and the former seems low on confidence after squandering a series of excellent chances against both Valencia and Levante. It certainly won’t help Zidane’s mood to see Álvaro Morata and Mariano, both shipped out this summer, banging in the goals for Chelsea and Lyon respectively.
For Zidane, Ronaldo’s return can’t come soon enough. Although the season is still in its infancy, his Madrid side are already four points off the pace, and Barcelona’s run of form is showing no sign of abating. Any further slip-ups could turn this early-season blip into a much bigger problem.