Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose five meetings last season produced fireworks on and off the pitch, clash in a potentially explosive Spanish Supercup first leg tomorrow, which will set a marker for the season ahead.
Barcelona swept to a La Liga-UEFA Champions League double last time out, winning praise worldwide for their free-flowing, mesmeric style which had some commentators eagerly anointing them as the greatest club side of all time. Real, meanwhile, had to settle for the Spanish Cup which was at least won with victory over their bitter rivals.
Tomorrow's match at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu will be played amid tight security in what is classified a high-risk meeting after last season's five-game saga. If Sergio Ramos overcomes a niggling back problem Madrid could field the same side that lost 5-0 to Barcelona in La Liga last November. The subsequent four matches in the space of 18 days in April were more evenly fought and saw Real regain some lost pride with their King's Cup final victory.
"Real Madrid have had an impeccable pre-season in terms of results," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. "In terms of play, from what I've seen they've continued in as good a vein as last season."
Cristiano Ronaldo scored, until now his only goal against Barcelona, in the final to qualify his team for Sunday's clash and he is keen this season to add more titles. "Of course we are going to try and have a good year," said Ronaldo. "I'm not thinking about beating my own figures (from last season when he scored 40 league goals). I just want to play as well as I can for the team and win trophies which is what we work hard for."
The only selection question for Jose Mourinho's side is on the right-hand side of midfield where new signing from Benfica Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria are fighting for one berth. Mourinho picked Argentine Di Maria in that position throughout last season but Coentrao, the club's most expensive signing this summer, has been impressive in pre-season.
Barcelona, who went on to Champions League sucess against Manchester United in their last official game after defeating Real in the two legged semi-final, have more headaches surrounding their starting eleven. Talismanic midfielder Xavi Hernandez is almost certain not to play due to a calf strain, while injuries picked up in Spain's friendly defeat by Italy on Wednesday have left Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets doubts for Sunday. Pique suffered a hamstring strain against Italy but is more likely to play than Busquets who trained alone on Friday with bruised ribs.
Xavi's likely replacement is Thiago Alcantara, who starred in the Spanish U-21 team that won this summer's UEFA European Championship and also appeared against the Italians on Wednesday making his full Spanish debut. Javier Mascerano is standing by to fill in Pique's central defensive role, a task he relishes. "I have a lot of experience playing there so it doesn't worry me, we want to win the Supercopa, it will give us a great boost ahead of the start of the League," he said.
Another alternative for that position is Eric Abidal now completely recovered from having a tumour removed from his liver in March. Superstar Lionel Messi returned to training on Monday after an extended break following the Copa America and should be ready to play with new signing Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean international, who is also set to feature.
An indication of how serious Barça are taking the game is they will arrive in the Spanish capital on today, a change in their plans from last season of travelling to games in Spain only on the day of the match. The second leg will be at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.