One of the most interesting features of the Spanish football season, which kicks off on Saturday, will be the clash between the new coaches of giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Few Spaniards doubt that Barca and Real will finish in the top two places, just as they have done over the past five seasons.
So now the focus is on their new coaches: Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti.
Who of the two will settle in more quickly? Which of the two coaches will be able to get more out of his squad? And which one will be able to take his team beyond the Champions League semi-finals — the best result of the two Spanish teams during the last two seasons? To make matters more interesting, this is the first time since 2003 that Barca and Real have brought in new coaches at the same time.
Of the two, Martino has taken over in more difficult circumstances than Ancelotti, with less time to prepare the new season.
He was appointed on July 23, when Tito Vilanova told Barca he could not continue due to the intensive treatment needed for his throat cancer.
By then, an exhaustive pre-season tour of Asia — which Martino has criticized in private — had been planned, and Brazilian starlet Neymar signed.
Neymar has been Barca’s only signing so far, and — according to media reports — will probably be the only one.
Vilanova had asked Barca to sign a new central defender, after crashing out of the Champions on an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate against Bayern Munich. But Martino seems to think he can get by with what he has.
Martino, humble and diplomatic, has gone down well in the dressing-room, and is working hard to integrate Neymar and improve the team’s ability to win the ball back quickly.
“This is a wonderful squad,” he said last week, “full of quality and character. I am privileged to work with these players.” But will this squad — now controversially without Eric Abidal and Thiago Alcantara — be big enough to survive what will surely be a long, hard season? While Barca have endured a summer of convulsions and shocks, Real have enjoyed a rare — by their recent standards — summer of calm and tranquility.
Ancelotti — called “The Peacemaker” by the media — has worked hard to restore harmony in a dressing-room that was completely divided by predecessor Jose Mourinho.
The Italian has been just as humble and diplomatic as Martino. On Monday, after a successful tour of the United States, he said, “This is the best squad I have ever had ... We have a good team, young and strong.” Ancelotti is particularly pleased with young signings Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Asier Illaramendi and Isco.
Also, he is working hard to recuperate Kaka — who did well under him at AC Milan — after four years of frustration and injury in Madrid.
Ancelotti would like Real to complete the signing of Gareth Bale from Tottenham, but will not be annoyed if this does not happen in the end.
Possibly the only weakness in his squad is the lack of a centre-forward who can guarantee 20 goals a season, now that Gonzalo Higuain has been sold to Napoli.
Cristiano Ronaldo — who has still not extended his contract with Real — does not like to be tied down to the number nine role; Karim Benzema still looks timid and unsure of himself; while Alvaro Morata still looks rather green.